Researchers develop ingestible capsule that makes stomach feel full
A team of researchers at MIT has developed an ingestible capsule that vibrates to make the stomach feel full, offering a potential new non-surgical treatment option for obesity. The vibrating pill, described in a paper published December 22 in Science Advances, was tested on pigs and found to cause weight loss by tricking the stomach into feeling full with much less food.
The pill contains a small battery-operated device that vibrates and pulses once ingested. As project leader Xuanhe Zhao, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, explains: “The sensations trick the brain into thinking the stomach is full.”
How the vibrating capsule works to suppress appetite
The researchers theorized that vibrating the stomach could make the brain think food is on the way, activating the brain regions that suppress appetite. To test this, they designed a pill containing a tiny magnet and circuit board that causes the magnet to vibrate and pulse.
The capsule is too large to exit the stomach, so it sits in the stomach vibrating for a set period before stopping. Tests in pigs showed the pulses made the animals feel fuller and reduce their food intake without negatively impacting stomach emptying rates or gut hormone levels.
Over one week, researchers found the capsules led to 1.4 kg of weight loss in the pigs, compared to 0.43 kg for pigs in the control group not receiving the capsules. This suggests the approach could offer an effective and safe way to lose weight without side effects.
Potential advantages over existing weight loss methods
Current bariatric surgeries like gastric bands or bypasses permanently rearrange the stomach and gut anatomy, requiring invasive operations with risks and long recovery times. The new vibrating pill, in contrast, is simply ingested and passes through the body when digestion concludes.
The approach could also help people struggling with other nonsurgical weight loss interventions like strict dieting, exercise regimes, or existing medications. Diet drugs currently prescribed for obesity also come with gastrointestinal side effects that the vibrating capsule appears to avoid.
What’s next for the vibrating pill technology
The researchers now plan to conduct trials in larger animals like sheep, bringing the capsule closer to clinical trials in humans. The team estimates the pill could enter human trials within 2-3 years.
If proven effective in humans, the vibrating capsule could provide a cost-effective and low-risk supplement or alternative to bariatric surgery. The simple vibrating mechanism may also pave the way for other bioelectronic medicines that use electric pulses or vibrations to treat digestive disorders beyond obesity.
Concerns and limitations to address
More research is still needed to confirm the capsule’s safety and efficacy long term. The prototype’s battery only lasts a few days, so newer versions will need to last longer while remaining small enough to swallow. Enhancing the pill’s medication delivery abilities could also maximize weight loss benefits.
There may also be habituation effects over time where the stomach adjusts to the vibration sensations. Combining the capsules with lifestyles changes could help prolong weight loss, but long-term studies are vital.
Experts note the approach is unlikely to ever replace bariatric surgery for more severe obesity cases. But for mild to moderate obesity, the vibrating capsule offers a promising and exciting potential intervention that warrants rigorous continued investigation.
Quotes on significance of the new vibrating capsule:
The researchers and outside experts highlighted the importance of developing alternative obesity treatments given the condition’s health and economic burden:
“This type of therapy could provide a nonsurgical approach for obesity and related metabolic disorders…Unlike gastric surgeries that reduce the stomach size, this device does not alter anatomy so it should be less invasive as a weight-loss intervention.” – Xuanhe Zhao, Study Lead Author, MIT
“Using vibrations to influence organ function is a hot topic we’re only just now beginning to explore…This preliminary analysis suggests intriguing promise for treating obesity without surgery.” – Dr. Scott Kahan, National Clinical Director, National Center for Weight and Wellness
“Finding less invasive alternatives to bariatric surgery is crucial for treating the growing epidemic of obesity and metabolic diseases like diabetes…Bioelectronic approaches like this vibrating pill offer exciting potential solutions that merit extensive clinical investigation.” – Dr. Lee Kaplan, Director, Obesity, Metabolism & Nutrition Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital
Key statistics on rising obesity rates:
- Over 70% of adults aged 20 and over in the US are overweight or have obesity
- Obesity affected 650 million adults worldwide as of 2016
- Obesity is expected to affect nearly 1 in 5 adults globally by 2025
|% of Adults with Obesity
Projections show nearly 1 billion adults will have obesity by 2030 if current trends continue, highlighting the need for better interventions.
Final thoughts and next steps
The vibrating capsule marks a highly innovative method for using electronic stimulation to influence organ function and treat disease. While more analysis is still needed, the noninvasive pill promises a much-needed supplement or alternative to intensive surgical and medical options for losing weight.
Researchers next plan larger animal trials over 6 months to confirm longer-term safety and efficacy. Human trials could begin in 2-3 years if successful. Combining the capsules with medication delivery and lifestyle modification may further strengthen weight loss outcomes as well.
With obesity rising precipitously worldwide, developing effective therapeutic interventions remains a pressing healthcare priority. This initial research suggests bioelectronics and pulsating/vibrating pill technologies could offer practical solutions to this global epidemic, improving treatment access and outcomes for patients. Continued research and development of such innovative devices will be critical in better managing obesity in the years ahead.
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