Image Courtesy of MIT

A team of researchers at MIT has developed a special electronic pill designed to send electric signals (small shocks) to the nerves in a patient’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

The nervous system sends signals using small electric charges traveling from neuron to neuron. Many of these neurons are in the GI tract, forming the complex ‘enteric nervous system’ or ENS. The ENS handles digestion by itself, which is why you don’t have to consciously think to digest food.

The way it does this is with complex signaling pathways that can interpret various stimuli and then respond by inducing physical or chemical changes within the GI system.

While it mostly handles digestion by itself, the ENS still interacts with the brain. For example, when the ENS notices that the stomach is empty it will start releasing a hormone called ghrelin into the bloodstream. The ghrelin travels to the brain which then creates the sense of being hungry.

Recent discoveries in physiology and medicine showed that this connection between the ENS and the brain is actually incredibly important. It has been linked to all kinds of diseases and disorders including depression, diabetes, cognition, anxiety and more.

What Does the Pill Do?

This new treatment is promising for those suffering with conditions that cause nausea and loss of appetite like anorexia and cancer. Yet the pill is extraordinarily simple. It is essentially just a $1, FDA approved battery, encased in a covering with small groves with tiny electrodes on the surface.

Right now the pill is always on, but the researchers want to add wireless functionality to the device so that it can be turned on and off with ease.

The simplicity of the device is a major advantage for a wide variety of reasons. First, it will likely be easier to get through the clinical trial process. The team of researchers expects that it will be able to launch human trials within 3 years. If it makes it through clinical trials, it should end up to be quite cheap as well.

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