Smart grids in our bodies and control rooms for health robots

Did you know that in our bodies, we have a smart grid: the circulatory system?

PekkoVehvilainen

The circulatory system is an evolutionary product over 600 million years old; it came about as coelenterates (creatures such as sea anemones and jellyfish) evolved into bilateral animals. The development of the circulatory system was necessary for the evolution of organisms, because until then, communication between cells was based on a chemical reaction, diffusion. Diffusion, however, requires that the cells be adjacent, and as a reaction, it is slow. Compared with diffusion, the circulatory system is much faster and more efficient in transmitting energy and information. Thanks to the circulatory and nervous systems, cells were able to evolve and specialise into more complex organs. At the same time, the organism’s ability to explore and modify its habitat improved.

The task of the circulatory system is to transfer oxygen and glucose for use by other cells. It’s also an information channel, in which hormones travel from glands to their different tasks. Moreover, the capillary system participates in the regulation of the body temperature. But could the circulatory system be even better and smarter?

Nanorobots are an innovation created by technological development. In the future, they can travel in the network formed by our blood vessels. There are ideas to task medical nanorobots with delivering and targeting medication. Robots could also destroy cancer cells as well as deliver insulin and other hormones. Swiss and Israeli researchers have already developed a nanorobot which moves in a fluid thicker than blood using its small fins. The robot receives its instructions with the help of a magnetic field. On the other hand, a magnetic field is somewhat clumsy and may not be easily accessible outside a hospital. That’s why an alternative energy source for nanorobots is being sought, for example among fuel cell technologies. So-called biofuel cells have already been manufactured in laboratories; but at the moment, their large-scale use is hampered by challenges in energy production.

Smart implants are an intermediary stage on the path towards nanorobots. A project by the United States Department of Defense is especially interested in launching physiological functions that prevent infection in the nervous system and the spine, as well as affecting the resistance to stress and the prevention of depression. Naturally, the aim is to improve the fighting ability and recovery of soldiers.

In a project initiated by the EU, the aim is to make the small devices in a human body to work together using an extremely small but energy-efficient microchip. Participating business parties include pacemaker, hearing aid, insulin pump and inner ear implant manufacturers.

Digitalisation and nanotechnology are taking big steps forward. It’s easy to see that the natural networks in our bodies, the circulatory, nervous and lymphatic systems, will be monitored and complemented with the help of technology. Using collected data, we can ourselves monitor the status of our bodies much more precisely in addition to natural pain and hunger signals. The greatest benefit of nanodevices, however, is achieved when they are connected with each other inside the body and can be linked to an information network and thus to service providers. In the future, the prevention and treatment of serious illnesses will become easier, and perhaps even heart attacks can be identified and entirely prevented.

It’s exciting to follow this development and to see how traditional sciences, engineering and medicine benefit each other. It’s already obvious that the doctors of the future will monitor the health processes of their clients in a control room, online and 24/7, instead of clumsy and random doctor’s appointments. •

Pekko Vehviläinen is a Doctor of Technology, consultant for digital healthcare services and the most quantified man in Finland.