Tandon researchers are talking to the brain, through the stomach

Khalil Ramadi's research into ingestible electro-technology could change how we treat some brain disorders, without surgery or medication.

Hand holding an electronic pill

When it comes to sticky medical issues, healthcare professionals typically have two options. Medication can provide targeted treatment, but almost always have side effects that range from neutral to potentially dangerous. The other option is surgical, which is invasive and sometimes hazardous to health in different ways. 

Khalil Ramadi, assistant professor of bioengineering and head of the Laboratory for Advanced Neuroengineering and Translational Medicine at NYU Abu Dhabi, is offering a third option: ingestible electro-technology that can directly stimulate the brain in order to treat certain disease states and conditions. 

The technology he is building takes advantage of the highway of circuits that connect the gut to the brain. While the brain connects extensively to the rest of the body through the peripheral nervous system, there is an especially robust series of receptors in the gut. That means that you can manipulate brain circuits from the stomach, rather than having to access them through surgery or other invasive procedures. 

The functions Ramadi can potentially affect through his devices range from basic metabolic functions like digestion to serious illnesses like diabetes and obesity, which can be curtailed by helping to regulate the metabolism of glucose or the brain’s hunger response. The potential isn’t limited to the stomach, however. Ramadi and his team are looking into how his devices could help treat neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by helping alleviate inflammation in the brain and prevent the degradation of brain circuits. Thanks to the interconnections of the nervous system, the potential is quite extraordinary.

Ramadi’s passion for this work took focus during his studies, where he did hospital rotations much like a studying physician. “You really get a sense for how messy medicine is,” says Ramadi. “I had to ask myself: how can we make this overall experience smoother, with not necessarily more medicine, but better medicine.”

There are still limitations to the technology. One major problem is that the researchers need a reliable way to keep the medical device where it can access the neural receptors, rather than be passed through the digestive tract. But once issues like this are solved, Ramadi’s technology may provide a key new tool to interface with the brain, and to heal the ailing.

He recently presented his work as a TED Fellow, representing work from innovators from around the world. The TED Fellows Program recognizes people at work on future-shaping ideas and technology, and each year, a new group of TED Fellows from around the world are inducted into this international community of remarkable thinkers and doers who have shown unusual accomplishment, exceptional courage, strength of character, and potential to create positive change in their respective fields.