Bioelectronic medicine is a fast growing alternative to drugs

Electroceuticals — using current to treat ailments — are already helping patients who haven’t responded to more traditional approaches for epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and more.

IN 2006 A CLINICAL TRIAL came to the attention of Dr. Andrew Cole, a neurologist and the director of the Epilepsy Service at Massachusetts General Hospital. The trial was to establish the effectiveness of a new device for treating epilepsy, the NeuroPace RNS System. The device intrigued him, because of its potential for addressing the most challenging cases of epilepsy. It also happened to be a new approach to fighting disease — one that may be as revolutionary as drugs were in the 20th century.

Epilepsy has multiple causes, among them genetics, head trauma, and brain tumors. Regardless, its signature seizures are the result of malfunctioning electrical connections in some part of the brain. Drugs can help, but they don’t work for about 20 percent of epileptics. And for a subset of those patients, conventional surgery isn’t even an option. Seizures can come from areas of the brain involved with speech, vision, memory, or movement of the hand. For these patients, “surgery carries too many risks,” says Cole.

Which is why MGH joined the trial. The battery-powered device — the size of a wispy-thin domino — could be embedded into the skull and connected with tiny wires to the glitchy part of a patient’s brain. It would function as a sort of cerebral pacemaker, stabilizing the misfiring neural links that were causing the seizures.