Electricity is nothing new. We have been using it to power everything – from everyday lightbulbs and appliances to, most recently, cars, since its commercial availability in the 20th century. Nonetheless, the use of direct electrical impulses in the field of medicine has often been something of a fringe science with the most common implementation lying in electroconvulsive therapy in psychiatric settings. Now though, a new field of “electroceuticals” which utilise electrical impulses to stimulate nerves and treat diseases is beginning to make waves within the medical field — kick-starting a multimillion dollar industry, which may be a part of healthcare’s future.

Zapping nerves with “electroceuticals”

One such company involved in the field of electroceuticals is the California-based, SetPoint Medical. Already the relative newcomer to the medical field has received millions of dollars in investment form major medical device companies, such as Medtronic, Boston Scientific and GlaxoSmithKline. However, SetPoint Medical is not the only one aiming to use electrical impulses to treat medical disease. Various academic labs and start-up companies, such as SetPoint Medical, have been hard at work to make the concept a reality.

The concept of electroceuticals is simple enough. Electrical impulses can be modulated by devices which can help speed up or slow down the action of nerves that are not functioning or conducting signals appropriately. In theory, this would provide a high-tech, non-pharmacological approach towards treating a large variety of conditions such as asthma, arthritis and incontinence. Many of these diseases currently do not have definite cures and prescription drugs merely act as symptom relievers. As such, it is no surprise that the Pentagon and National Institute of Health (NIH) have spent tens of millions of dollars into studying the concept of electroceuticals.

Electroceuticals, such as those manufactured by SetPoint Medical, are implantable devices the size of a large vitamin pill. Photo credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Nature
Electroceuticals, such as those manufactured by SetPoint Medical, are implantable devices the size of a large vitamin pill. Photo credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Nature

Overcoming current industry hurdles

SetPoint Medical themselves are aiming towards the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis which it believes has the potential to improve the quality of millions of patients suffering from the disease. Unfortunately, things are not as clear cut as SetPoint Medical would like it, considering electroceuticals are very much in the early days of development.

Currently, the company utilises a device, which is the size of a large vitamin pill, that emits electrical signals that stimulate nerves. This would then lead to reduced inflammation, and potentially, the ability to treat autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

While the early data is promising, it is also limited as SetPoint Medical has yet to carry out its first controlled clinical trial. That having said, much of the data it has is unreliable due to the lack of a control group. Moreover, a small sample size is another issue the company has to deal with – in view of future clinical trials which aim to involve up to 250 patients, in order to improve the reliability of the data. Even then, the company has yet to obtain FDA approval and mass produce the device to be available in the mass market – which it anticipates to take at least three years.

Until the benefits of electroceuticals such as those produced by SetPoint Medical can be empirically proven – electroceuticals still have a long way before they are widely accepted in the general medical field. Nevertheless, SetPoint CEO Anthony Arnold is optimistic about the future of electroceuticals. “This is a much more targeted, and hopefully a much more tolerable, way for patients who need alternatives” for existing rheumatoid arthritis therapies, remarked Arnold. “I think we can do it at a much lower cost than these biologic agents, and save the health care system large sums of money, and not have the side effects.”

Other notable examples of electroceuticals

As the race to produce beneficial electroceuticals continues, various companies are beginning to test its viability in a wide array of diseases. For example, two Massachusetts-based companies, neuroStar and Brainsway, have begun testing the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for the treatment of depression. While some experts are sceptical about the use of magnetic waves, early results have shown positive results. With further improvements, TMS may be the future alternative to electroconvulsive therapy with markedly reduced side effects.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has invested USD60 million into the development of electroceuticals to treat pain, gastrointestinal inflammation, and post-traumatic stress, among other problems. Other companies working on developing electroceuticals include CVRx, a Minessota-based company developing a neuromodulation therapy to regulate blood pressure and slow the progression of heart failure. Neuspera, a Silicon Valley based company, is working on miniaturising electroceuticals which have the ability to pace heart beats and regulate nerve impulses. Lastly, there is EnteroMedics which is developing vBloc, a device to tackle obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.


As the medical field continues to move forward, so will its adoption of high-tech smart devices that we currently see in the mass-market consumption. However, unlike consumer electronics, treating diseases has proven to be much more difficult as the root of the disease is often poorly understood and nerve stimulation alone does not provide a definitive curative action. Nevertheless, companies such as SetPoint are working towards developing newer, smaller, and more effective implantable devices to treat a wide array of disease. The success of electroceuticals is not guaranteed – but, with due diligence and continued research, it may just be the next household medical device in the near future. MIMS

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