European initiative spearheads medical advances
Through the accomplishments of the Healthy Aims project treatments are emerging for the previously untreatable. Teams of doctors and engineers across Europe are supplying new technologies to improve current medical methods.
A 70 year old patient of the Southampton Hospital in the UK, Anthony Batchelor, has already been subjected to triple bypass surgery, after he was victim to several heart attacks. He will now receive a defibrillator implant, which should regulate his heart rate. Pre-surgery measurements are a very important part of the whole treatment; physiological responses like blood pressure or respiratory rate are analysed in comparison to the physical activities of the patient. Until now the only available method was to ask the patient, but the arrival of a new device allows accurate data to be objectively collected.
The Activity Monitor, developed in Codicote, north of London, is being used for sufferers of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or obesity. The device, worn on the waist, can take measurements 24 hours a day, detailing the type, intensity and duration of the patient's activities. Measurements are made with a three-axis accelerometer, which senses external forces very accurately, and then analysed using specially developed algorithms.
The Healthy Aims project, involving 25 partners from 10 countries, is delivering many devices such as the Activity Monitor. An important theme of the project is the reproduction of electrodes and strain gauge technology at the nano scale, allowing for micro scale medical systems that can exist on or within the human body without causing further complications.
Another device is helping a stroke victim, Marci Lelliott of Poole in the UK, return movement to her left hand. Marci received an implant in her forearm with electrodes attached to muscle and nerve bundles. One operational function is to extend the wrist; the other is to open the fingers. The device has then different modes to control the wrist for different purposes.
The implant is connected wirelessly with a removable box, which is worn on the forearm. It controls and supplies power to the implant. The system, named STIMuGRIP, uses accelerometers in a similar fashion to the Activity Monitor. When particular arm movements from the patient are detected by the accelerometers, the implant sends electrical pulses to stimulate the desired wrist and finger movements.
In Mechelen, Belgium, further research is being done on cochlear technologies. A new generation of implant will greatly improve the quality of life from many deaf people, allowing them to converse in louder conditions. The implant has enabled its recipient, Maurice Vertongen, to listen to music for the first time in 20 years. This is achieved by sending electrical impulses to stimulate the cochlea, the part of the inner ear responsible for hearing.
The system itself includes an external component (an ear hook similar to traditional hearing aids) and an implant which are connected wirelessly. The external component consists of the microphones, sound processor and batteries, while the implant has the electronics that send the stimulation pulses.
The Healthy Aims project hopes to develop the implant technology extensively enough so that the accompanying external part becomes obsolete. To meet this aim researchers are working on a battery that can be safely implanted in a human. The electrodes will also be designed for optimal use with the human nervous system.
With the financial backing of a collective Europe scientific community, things are being achieved, what were until recently not thought possible. The technical advances from the Healthy Aims project allows one to envision a future without deafness, or where patients can win back the use of once paralysed parts of the body.