New Microchip Technology to Track ‘Smart Pills’

Researchers at Caltech have developed a prototype miniature medical device that could ultimately be used in “smart pills” to diagnose and treat diseases. This new technology’s location can be precisely identified within the body, something that was challenging before.

A smart pill contains a one-square-millimeter sensor . Once swallowed, the sensor is activated by electrolytes within the body. The pill then transmits a signal to a small, battery-powered patch worn on the user’s torso and sends the data via Bluetooth to a family member’s smartphone.

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Caltech’s prototype miniature medical device, called ATOMS, short for addressable transmitters operated as magnetic spins, the new silicon-chip devices borrow from the principles of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), in which the location of atoms in a patient’s body is determined using magnetic fields.

The microdevices would also be located in the body using magnetic fields–but inside than relying on the body’s atoms, the chips contain a set of integrated sensors, resonators, and wireless transmission technology that would allow them to mimic the magnetic resonance properties of atoms.

A key principle of MRI is that a magnetic field gradient causes atoms at two different locations to resonate at two different frequencies, making it easy to tell where they are.

The researchers at Caltech say the devices are still preliminary but could one day serve as miniature robotic wardens of our bodies, monitoring a patient’s gastrointestinal tract, blood, or brain. The devices could measure factors that indicate the health of a patient–such as pH, temperature, pressure, sugar concentrations–and relay that information to doctors. Or, the devices could even be instructed to release drugs.

The big technology enablers of these types of devices include: the explosion of low-cost solid state sensors; the maturity of low-energy/mid-data rate wireless solutions like Bluetooth smart; semiconductor packaging and process advancements that enable high-density memory and processing capability in very small footprint and flexible circuit boards.

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