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Next-gen electronics bring healthcare home

Posted: 24 Feb 2011     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:wireless implants  wearable patches  battery technologies  energy harvesting technologies 

The International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) saw keynote speakers emphasising the role that electronics will play using new processor, radio, battery and data mining techniques to bring healthcare from the hospital to the home.

"There is a revolution coming in healthcare based on a network of devices, but this will require the work of a huge number of companies most of whom are in this room today," said Tim Denison, a Medtronic technical fellow and director of neural engineering at Medtronic Neuromodulation.

Denison sketched out the challenges behind a vision of wireless implants the size of aspirin capsules that could monitor and analyse a wide range of diseases. The work is rooted in the kinds of cardiac pacemakers Medtronic and others have pioneered.

"We are electrical beings and the diseases we have are rooted to a certain extent in an electrical system, so we don't stop with the heart," Denison said, listing more than a dozen conditions current or future implants will treat.

In a second keynote, Jo de Boeck, a senior VP at Europe's Imec research institute, described the challenges of building a wearable patch that could monitor multiple conditions. "We will try to move healthcare from the hospital to the home, so we can reduce the cost and improve the quality of life of the patients," de Boeck said.

Both speakers said they foresee challenges analysing the real time streams of data the future implants and patches generate. "We have to be thoughtful about how we turn raw data into meaningful clinical insights," said Denison.

Imec's de Boeck said the future sensors also could monitor diet, medication intake, sleep and activity, gait and even gases from the breath. "Looking at that from an engineering perspective, it's a lot of information but it's not all data," he said.

Engineers need to develop new battery and energy harvesting technologies to power such devices. A wireless patch which might have sucked a watt of power two years ago, will only consume about 100mW using today's best components. However, it needs to get down to as little as 50mW on 6mm2 printed battery, said de Boeck.

Engineers also must design new lower-power techniques to analyse growing amounts of sensor data and increasingly complex algorithms. "These devices will become significant computers in their own right," de Boeck said.

He called for an ultra-low-power instruction set architecture optimised for a handful of applications including medical monitoring. "This is the view of some of my colleagues," he said.

Packaging technology also needs to evolve to handle the new medtech devices. Denison described wafer-scale assembly techniques needed to create a 3D stack of chips and battery elements inside the capsule-sized implants.

For its part, Imec has developed an electrode based on a flexible interconnect to enable a wearable patch that can stretch as users move and exercise. It has also worked on integrating biosensors into wearable textiles.

De Boeck pointed to an Imec paper at this year's ISSCC describing an 8bit processor fabricated on an organic plastic substrate as an indicator of the future. "We will see if in 20 years' time half the designers here will be working on silicon and half on plastic," he said.

Medical engineers can leverage CE technology, too, said Denison. One company has a spinal stimulation implant approved for use in Europe that includes a three-axis accelerometer to automatically change amplitude of a stimulus as the patient changes posture, he said.

"The Nintendo Wii and Apple iPhone have solved this issue, so we can adapt that technology and marry it with an implant," Denison said.

The new implants hold the promise of saving lives. Denison noted changes in heart pressure can signal the onset of heart failure a few days before a heart attack hits.

- Rick Merritt
  EE Times

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