Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sunday Globe Special: Numb to the Pain

"Inventor says his device may be able to eliminate chronic pain" by Terrence McCoy Washington Post  August 15, 2015

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The life of Robert Fischell has been one of doozies. A space scientist turned inventor, Fischell has authored more than 200 patents that range from the grave to the quirky. He has invented a rechargeable pacemaker, an implantable cardiac defibrillator, a device that warns of epileptic seizures, an insertable insulin pump, and a gizmo that zaps migraines before they start.

He has also fashioned penile prosthetics to cure erectile dysfunction as well as something called a ‘‘bowl for keeping cereal crispy.’’

But this invention, he says, is his most ambitious yet.


Fischell is not a young man. He’s 86, and aware his time may be limited. So he keeps a frenetic pace. He clocks 10-hour days at his office. He drives fast. This could be his last great invention, and he has to finish it soon.

He hustles into the Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices, arriving at a conference room. The first scientist to join him is Lex Schultheis, the director of the university’s innovation initiative.

‘‘There are two kinds of pain,’’ said Schultheis. ‘‘Good pain and bad pain. There’s the pain that prevents you from reinjuring yourself,’’ which he experienced after a unicycle accident.

But then there’s ‘‘bad pain,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s when the repair is done and the doctors have done everything they can. It’s not serving a purpose.’’

We live in an era of chronic pain. It batters one-third of Americans, more people than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer — combined. The answer thus far has been painkillers, and the number of opioid prescriptions have tripled in the last 15 years, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This, however, has been a deal with the devil. Between 1999 and 2010, the number of opioid overdoses surged from 4,000 to 16,500 amid mounting evidence suggesting that painkillers actually increase pain sensitivity.

Meaning you need another prescription or different medication! 


That got Fischell thinking.

If the body is a house, the nervous system is its electrical wiring. The network, which has millions of entry points throughout the body, communicates in electrical pulses. A finger prick shoots a series through a long axon to the spine — the pathway that all pain signals must pass — until they strike the brain. The higher the frequency of the nerve’s signal to the brain, the greater the pain.

So Fischell, now holding forth at his meeting, said the best way to calm down those nerves is to speak to them in a language they understand — electricity. The problem, of course, is that electricity kills.


Fischell’s latest invention interrupts a pain neuron’s electrical signal before it reaches the brain. And the best part, Fischell said, is that it doesn’t use electricity at all. It uses magnetism.

If electrical currents can disrupt pain receptors in the meninges and prevent migraines, it might do the same for other parts of the body....


You mean Tommie Copper works? 

I'll need to start wearing it for ball.