Google wants to hack the nervous system

Google wants to hack the nervous system

In 2014 a man in India thought (but did not utter) the word ‘Hola’, the Spanish for ‘Hello’. A few seconds later this same thought was received and deciphered by someone in France. The thought had been read by a brain-computer interface in India, transmitted via the internet and, in the form of a coded message, fed into the brain of the Frenchman wearing a similar contraption.

This was the first instance of telepathy orchestrated by technology and was an example of a phenomenon set for explosive growth. Called bioelectronics it is the fusion of the biological world with the modern technological apparatus of sensors, digital encryption, and connectivity.

Last month GlaxoSmithKline and Verily Life Sciences launched a new £540m joint venture, Galvani Electronics, to support bioelectronics research. And who, you may ask, is Verily Life Sciences? This is the new name for Google Life Sciences, and this latest deal is further evidence that the tech giant wants to use its technological prowess to get involved in healthcare.

Bioelectronics – you heard it here first

Bioelectronics roughly means “the application of electronics to healthcare”. It’s been around for decades in basic forms, such as pacemakers used to treat heart conditions.

Bioelectronics is big news in 2016 because it is now possible to envisage tiny electronic devices that both monitor and control biological systems. So, for instance, nano-robots could permanently patrol the human body, spotting signs of trouble long before they become evident to the patient, sending out warning messages and triggering therapeutic action.

Galvani Electronics, the Glaxo and Verily Life Sciences joint venture has something rather different in mind. It is interested in bioelectronic medicine ‘where nano-scale devices connect to groups of individual nerve fibres and change patterns of electrical signals to restore health to organs and biological functions.’ One day, it says, ‘bioelectronic medicines could potentially coax insulin from cells to treat diabetes, regulate food intake to treat obesity, and correct balances in smooth muscle tone to treat hypertension and pulmonary diseases.’

The basis for this is that almost all of the cells in the body are directly or indirectly controlled by the nervous system which itself is made of cells called neurons. Neural instructions are transmitted in the form of electrical signals and these influence cell proliferation and differentiation, tissue regeneration and the functioning of our organs. Altering these bioelectrical patterns will affect growth and development. Bioelectric medicines will seek to do exactly this.

Hacking the nervous system

‘Researchers are beginning to document how a broad range of bodily functions are influenced by the nervous system’, says Galvani, ‘from the control of appetite and blood pressure to the production of destructive cytokines (substances secreted from cells) in rheumatoid arthritis.’

By acting upon the nervous system we can affect such outcomes and Galvani gives a couple of examples of how this could be done. ‘Advances in keyhole surgery are taking us towards the possibility of placing miniature devices on individual nerve bundles throughout the body,’ while ‘optogenetics can address individual neurons in living tissue.’

And what on earth is optogenetics I hear you ask? It is the use of light to control the function of cells that genetic modification has made sensitive to that light.

Already the first human trials of bioelectronic medicines are under way. SetPoint Medical, a private company that counts Glaxo as one of its investors, placed an electrical stimulator on the vagus nerve (which runs through the neck) of seventeen patients with severe rheumatoid arthritis. ‘Several patients reported significant improvements, including some who had failed to respond to any other form of pharmaceutical treatment….No serious side effects were reported.’

In a TedMed presentation (that you can find here) Kevin Tracey, a co-founder of SetPoint, describes how before the trial one patient ‘could not grasp a pencil, dress herself or go on the long walks that she enjoyed.’ After her vagus nerve was electrically stimulated ‘she came off her medication, had no pain, resumed her long walks and even went on 20km bike rides.’

So biolelectronic medicine could effectively treat diseases that are today intractable, such as asthma, arthritis and diabetes. And it could do so in a precisely targeted manner that avoids the unpleasant side effects that result when drugs are released to freely roam the body.

I need hardly add that the challenges are considerable and that the field is in its infancy. And there is one problem that is rather alarming. If we allow our bodies to be controlled by electronic sensors and stimuli, we could leave ourselves open to hackers. If anyone is going to electronically control my body, I would rather it is me!