Electric medicine underpins much of the work we do at the Bionics Institute.

It involves using electrical impulses to provide therapeutic benefit and this is usually achieved through an implanted device with electrical contacts (electrodes) placed on or near a nerve: it works because it’s using the same ‘language’ as the nervous system. The electrical impulses provided by a bionic implant mimic those produced by the nervous system to either bypass damage (as is the case in cochlear implants) or disrupt abnormal activity (as is the case in deep brain stimulation in Parkinson’s disease).

For the past five years, the Institute has been applying this same principle and our expertise in electronic systems to parts of the peripheral nervous system – the network of nerves that supply and control the autonomic nervous system of the body. We have used this approach successfully to create a device to alleviate the symptoms associated with inflammatory bowel disease.

Under the banner of electric medicine, we have recently embarked on research into several new areas of clinical need including under active bladder and diabetes. Some of these projects are at their very earliest stages but this approach promises to provide a safe and effective option to those who do not respond well to conventional (drug) therapies.

Why use Electric Medicine?

Using electric medicine to alter the activity of peripheral nerves has the potential to treat a wide range of diseases that are poorly controlled by drugs. In addition, a bionic approach to treating the symptoms of a given health disorder has several clear advantages over more commonly used drug-based therapies.

  • Electric medicine is specific to the target organ, whereas drugs circulate throughout the body and often cause undesirable side-effects
  • Drug costs are on-going and sometimes provide limited benefit: the cost of a medical implant, while initially more expensive, is one-off
  • Electric medicine has the potential to be personalised so that therapeutic stimulation changes according to real-time changes in a patient’s symptoms
  • By incorporating remote monitoring capabilities, patients’ symptoms and responses to electric medicine can be assessed by clinicians without the need for clinical visits. When providing drug therapies for chronic disease, repeat clinical reviews are required to select and monitor the correct drug and dose
  • Compared with the pharmaceutical drug screening process, developing an electrical stimulation therapy can be done much faster
  • For some conditions, such as severe hearing loss, there are no drug treatments and electric medicine has proven clinical efficacy (cochlear implants have restored hearing to over 550,000 people globally).

There are also economic benefits to the bionic approach since the cost of developing a medical device is far lower than for pharmaceuticals. This factor combined with the technological advancements in microcircuit miniaturisation, battery technologies and processing power means that electric medicine is rapidly and effectively expanding into new areas of clinical need.