• Researchers at the Bionics Institute are developing a new way to monitor and control bladder function.

  • Many people with urinary incontinence experience a loss of bladder control, which can have a significant social impact that leads to depression and anxiety.

  • The aim of our research is to develop adaptive technology that senses how full the bladder is, delays urination until a socially appropriate moment, and facilitates bladder emptying.

What is urinary incontinence?

The loss of bladder control, or urinary incontinence, affects over 1 in 4 adult Australians and 80% of those affected are women.

Urinary incontinence is particularly prevalent in certain health conditions, including diabetes, spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, after pelvic surgery and when people get older.

The severity of incontinence ranges from occasionally leaking urine when coughing or sneezing, to not being able to prevent urination or complete loss of bladder control.

The mental health and economic impacts of urinary incontinence

There are limited treatment options available for urinary incontinence, most of which have limited effectiveness. Although not life threatening, urinary incontinence is an embarrassing problem, and has significant mental health and social impacts..

It also poses a huge burden on the Australian health care system, costing an estimated $450 million in direct health costs.

Developing a treatment for people with urinary incontinence will bring huge benefits for individuals and the economy.

Restoring bladder control with sensing and stimulation

Electricity can be used to alter the activity of peripheral nerves to control the function of an organ. Our technology will deliver electricity to bladder nerves to allow control over when the bladder is emptied.

A critical aspect of our treatment strategy is being able to deliver electricity at precise moments, when the bladder is at a certain degree of fullness.

To do this, we are developing new ‘sensing’ technology that detects bladder pressure and therefore, how full the bladder is.

Just as bladder nerves can be used to control bladder function, the same nerves can also be used to inform on bladder pressure.

Combined together, our ‘stimulating’ and ‘sensing’ technology will allow adaptive control over bladder function. If successful, patients will never have to worry about loss of bladder control again.

Next steps for Bionics Institute researchers

Our novel sensing technology is currently being optimised and still requires validation under a range of relevant conditions, which is currently underway.

We have demonstrated an ability to start urination, with experiments exploring the best way to electrically stimulate the nerve to delay urination currently being planned.

The research team

BI researchers: Associate Professor James Fallon (PI), Dr Sophie Payne, Jerico Matarazzo, Chris Bowman

External Researchers: Professor Janet Keast (PI, University of Melbourne), Dr Peregrine Osborne (University of Melbourne), Dr Calvin Eiber (University of Melbourne)

More information for researchers

The use of electric medicine devices to stimulate the autonomic nervous system for the treatment of disease, such as urinary disorders, has gained significant momentum in the medical research community.

However, most devices used to deliver bioelectric therapy are open-loop and provide a fixed level of stimulation that does not respond to the fluctuations in the disease state.

The next generation of bioelectric neuromodulation devices aim to provide closed loop control, in which the level of stimulation adjusts to respond to a patient’s rapidly changing needs.

Developing a real-time biomarker using the nervous system itself allows for quick, accurate feedback regarding physiological state of the end organ is the first step in developing closed-loop technology.

In this project, we aim to demonstrate closed loop (adaptive) control over bladder function for the treatment of urinary incontinence.

Publications

Payne et al., 2020. Front in Neuro. http://doi:10.3389/fnins.2020.619275
Payne et al., 2018. Nat Rev Gastorl & Heptol https://doi.org/10.1038/s41575-018-0078-6