Hacking the Brain via the Stomach

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Khalil Ramadi is developing electronic pills that could transform how we treat some diseases. His ingestible micro-devices deliver "bionudges”—bursts of electrical or chemical stimuli—to the gut, potentially helping to control appetite, aid digestion, or regulate hormones.

In this episode of the Create the Future podcast, we discover how Khalil’s non-invasive technology targets specific circuits in the gut to achieve brain stimulation; learn how bionudges could treat diseases such as diabetes, obesity, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s; and discuss the history of the use of electricity in medicine. We explore the relatively new field of neuromodulation, discuss the challenges of applying the engineering mindset to medicine, and discover why it’s helpful to view engineering through the lens of problem-solving.

Episode highlights

  • “We're primarily interested in the diseases that arise from some sort of neural dysfunction in the gastrointestinal tract, or in the gut. And as you might imagine, you know, the gut is one of the primary ways that we interface with the world.”
  • “Neuromodulation therapies essentially try to leverage the fact that the language through which the nervous system communicates is essentially electricity—a flow of ions […] technically there are multiple different ways you might modulate neurones. One of the most popular ways, even historically, has been through the use of electricity."
  • “Something that we could do better for the younger generation, to show them that engineering is not necessarily all applying physics and maths and complicated equations, but rather just the way to problem solve. I think responsible engineering needs to be done by taking into account all the different stakeholders that may be affected.”
  • “Sometimes, really the reason why new technologies or techniques might fail is not because they're not good or not because they don't work, but because they just don't fit into a specific culture in the clinic or hospital. […] these technologies don't exist in a vacuum, they have to fit into a culture that already exists. And so, engaging with the people that are part of that culture is a crucial component in what we do as engineers.”
  • “This approach of applying an engineering mindset and developing new kinds of tools is really where the novelty comes in. Engineering advances have enabled us to do things like put electronics on a chip.”
  • “Electroshock therapy is still a therapy that we use today. But if you were to ask the scientific question of, ‘why does it work?’, you'll be surprised how many therapies we have for neuromodulation that we still don't have a fundamental understanding of why they work.“
  • “And I think most engineering approaches in medicine that are successful try to break down a problem and not over-engineer or apply too much technology to it, but rather go the opposite direction and say, ‘what is the minimum amount of technology that I need to achieve a certain goal?’.”

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