Healthcare Technology Featured Article

January 03, 2013

A Pacemaker Powered by Your Heart

People who have irregular heartbeats need a battery powered pacemaker. A pacemaker is a medical device that uses electrical impulses delivered by electrodes to contract the heart muscles. This regulates the beating of the heart. The primary purpose of a pacemaker is to maintain an adequate and regular heart rate.

Until now the pacemaker needed batteries, which are not small, to function. Researchers at the University of Michigan displayed a prototype pacemaker that does not rely on batteries. It is powered by the heartbeat. This makes the prototype pacemaker smaller than a penny. This new device runs on piezoelectricity.

Piezoelectricity is the charge that accumulates in certain solid materials such as crystals. The piezoelectric effect occurs when crystals acquire a charge when compressed, twisted or distorted. It was discovered by Jacques and Pierre Curie in 1880.

Image via Shutterstock

You never can tell where or when a new discovery will be made. Researchers in Michigan’s Department of Aerospace Engineering stumbled upon this concept when they were looking into a possible unmanned aircraft that could be powered by the vibration of its own wings.

The researchers tested the same concept for a pacemaker. They connected simulated heartbeat induced vibrations to a prototype cardiac energy harvester. After trying a wide range of simulated heartbeats, the test showed that the energy harvester generated more than 10 times the power required by modern pacemakers.

The prototype pacemaker is basically powered in the same way that a lighter works. The clicking noise you hear when flicking a lighter is the sound of shaking or squeezing a small piezoelectric plate inside. The plate is a hundredth-of-an-inch slice of brownish material that vibrates.

A technology weblog called Extreme Tech, said that the idea is a kind of perpetual motion machine. The heartbeat keeps the pacemaker working properly while the pacemaker keeps the heart beating properly. This is important because this is one of the things that will make the prototype a real benefit.

Not only can this device be smaller, but current pacemakers use a battery. This battery needs to be replaced every five years or so. Imagine how many operations that would be if you need a pacemaker early in life. You can also imagine how serious of an operation that is if you have a pacemaker very late in your life. Neither is a situation that a person wants to be confronted with. Now imagine a pacemaker that is self-powered by your own heartbeat, and is much smaller.

The researchers at the University of Michigan have proven that it is do-able. However, the prototype pacemaker has not been tested on an actual human heart. According to the American Heart Association, there are about 370,000 pacemaker procedures every year. That is about three million people worldwide who are walking around with a pacemaker that will need to have the batteries replaced.

There are still a lot of issues that need to be dealt with. Considering that everyone’s heartbeat is slightly different, they need to make sure that the device can function properly in all cases. They need to make sure that the device will continue to operate from a resting heart to an excited heart without skipping a beat. There is still some question as to where to actually insert the device. How close does it need to be to the heart? These are all concerns that need to be addressed before the prototype pacemaker can be used.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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