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MIT’s Vibrating Capsule for Weight Control

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Upon consuming a substantial meal, an individual’s stomach communicates with the brain through signals that generate a sensation of fullness. This physiological response is a crucial indicator, prompting the person to recognise the need to cease eating.

Notably, the stomach can convey similar signals when filled with liquids. This phenomenon underpins the standard dietary recommendation for individuals to consume a glass of water before meals, as it aids in inducing a sense of fullness. This practice aligns with strategies to promote mindful eating habits and curb overall food intake.

Image credits: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In light of this, MIT engineers have introduced a novel approach to leveraging stomach distension for weight control by developing an ingestible capsule that induces vibrations within the stomach. These vibrations activate stretch receptors, creating a perceived sense of fullness. Administered 20 minutes before meals in animal studies, the capsule prompted the release of satiety-signaling hormones and led to a significant 40% reduction in food intake. While more research is needed to understand its impact on humans, this technology could offer a minimally invasive solution for obesity treatment.

Lead author Shriya Srinivasan, now an Assistant Professor at an international university, explains that the capsule, taken before each meal, could provide an option with fewer side effects than existing pharmacological treatments. The study, featured in Science Advances, was a collaboration between MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, led by Giovanni Traverso.

The stomach’s mechanoreceptors are crucial in signalling fullness to the brain when distended. Inspired by artificially stretching these receptors through vibration, Srinivasan sought to create an illusory sense of stomach expansion. Collaborating with a lab, the researchers developed a capsule with a vibrating element about the size of a multivitamin. Powered by a small battery, the pill dissolves a gelatinous membrane upon reaching the stomach, activating the vibrating motor and stimulating mechanoreceptors.

Animal studies demonstrated that the vibrating capsule triggered mechanoreceptors, mimicking hormone release patterns observed post-meal, even during fasting. Activating the pill for 20 minutes before offering food led to a 40% reduction in food consumption, with the animals gaining weight more slowly during treatment periods. Traverso emphasised the potential of this endogenous approach to induce behavioural changes and modulate the enteric nervous system, overcoming challenges and costs associated with drug delivery.

The current design allows the pill to vibrate in the stomach for approximately 30 minutes, but the researchers plan to explore options for extended periods and wireless on-off control. Despite passing through the digestive tract within four to five days in animal studies, there were no signs of obstruction or negative impacts. This innovative approach offers an alternative to current obesity treatments, including invasive procedures like gastric bypass surgery and less widely used options such as gastric balloons.

In contrast to current medical interventions like injectable GLP-1 agonists, the vibrating capsule demonstrates the potential for increased affordability and accessibility. Shriya Srinivasan, who envisions it as a cost-effective solution, emphasised its relevance in global health settings where sophisticated or expensive treatments may not be easily accessible. The prospect of offering an economically viable and broadly available alternative holds promise for addressing obesity on a global scale.

In the future, the pivotal next phase involves scaling up manufacturing processes. This crucial step is integral to realising the full potential of the vibrating capsule in clinical applications. By optimising production capabilities, the aim is to facilitate large-scale deployment, making the technology more widely available for diverse populations. This expansion in manufacturing capacity lays the groundwork for conducting human clinical trials.

Human clinical trials represent the critical pathway to further assess the vibrating capsule’s safety, efficacy, and practical aspects. Researchers will delve into considerations such as the optimal timing and frequency of administration to ensure the capsule’s effectiveness as a weight control solution. These trials will provide invaluable insights into the capsule’s impact on diverse individuals, offering a comprehensive understanding of its potential benefits and any associated considerations.

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