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Modern medicine: Electrical prescriptions

When we think about taking medicines, we imagine popping a pill, or perhaps receiving a shot or IV.

Those methods target the chemical pathways of our bodies. But a new approach to medicine would instead leverage the electrical signals that govern many of our bodies' functions.

"The concept is to use neural technology to communicate directly with those nerve pathways that go to your heart, go to your spleen, go to your other internal organs, and use the neural interface to monitor what's going on, assess health status and then intervene to make changes to organ system functions to restore health," said Doug Weber. He's a program manager in the biological technologies office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which is helping fund the work.

Neural networks
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The idea would be to implant tiny electrodes onto nerves that could deliver signals to correct dysfunction that causes disease. It's like a pacemaker but on a micro-scale.

The concept is still in the early stages, but already companies including drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline are working on it.

"We need to understand both how things are wired up and how communication takes place along those pathways," Weber said. "It's the latter portion of the problem that still needs greater work."

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Weber cautions the research is still years away from becoming reality. But he's hopeful "electrical prescriptions" could at some point be a new option for treating disease.

"It all comes down to communication of information throughout your nervous system and between the different cells of your body," Weber said. "There the chemist's approach in the form of drugs, and there's the electrical engineer's approach in the form of electrics."