If remembering to take your medication is a constant grind, or you suffer from severe side effects, you might be tempted to ditch the pills altogether. So how about having your body’s neural circuits modified by an electronic implant instead?

Electroceuticals are tiny devices that can be implanted in the body via keyhole surgery, and aim to treat disease by targeting individual nerve fibres or specific brain circuits.

Essentially, electroceuticals attempt to re-wire signals that have gone awry due to disease and consequently return diseased organs to a healthier state.

It’s a relatively new scientific field, but some proponents argue that the devices could revolutionise the treatment of chronic diseases such as asthma, arthritis and diabetes within a decade or two.

Electroceuticals: positives and negatives

As electroceuticals target specific neural electrical circuits, the potential to optimise and personalise treatment on a patient-by-patient basis is greater than for conventional pharmaceuticals. This specificity of response could greatly reduce side effects and enhance overall effectiveness.

Implanting long-lasting devices would also remove the problem of poor treatment adherence, and consequently suboptimal therapeutic effects.

But electroceuticals are unlikely to work for conditions where the whole brain tissue is impacted, such as Alzheimer’s disease, or those where signalling has gone ‘extremely awry’, such as in cancer.

Critics also point to the complexity of neural networks. For many, precisely mapping the neural circuits associated with specific diseases, and durably, reliably and safely modifying the flow of information through an enormous number of neurons represents an unrealistic goal.

Who’s charging ahead?

This hasn’t stopped a substantial rise in R&D investment in recent years. There are currently a number of companies specializing in the development of electroceuticals, including electroCore and NeuSpera.

Big pharma is also getting in on the act. Last year, GSK struck a deal with Verily Life Sciences (formerly Google Life Sciences) to establish a new electroceuticals company – Galvani Bioelectronics. Together, the parent companies have committed to invest up to $540m over a seven-year period.