Hacking Headaches: Keeping A Neurostimulator Working

We’ve heard a ton of stories over the years about abandoned technology — useful widgets, often cloud-based, that attracted an early and enthusiastic following, only to have the company behind the tech go bankrupt or decide to end operations for business reasons, which effectively bricks hundreds or perhaps millions of otherwise still-usable devices. Now imagine that happening to your brain.

[Markus Möllmann-Bohle] doesn’t have to imagine it, because he’s living it. [Markus] suffers from chronic cluster headaches, an often debilitating condition that leaves a person with intractable pain. Having lived with these headaches since 1987, and treating them with medications with varying degrees of success, [Markus] was finally delivered from his personal hell by a sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG) neuromodulator. The device consists of an unpowered stimulator implanted under the cheekbone that’s wired into the SPG, a bundle of nerves that supply the sinuses, nasal mucosa, tear glands, and many other structures in the face.

To reverse a cluster headache, [Markus] applies an external transmitter to the side of his face, which powers the implant and directs it to stimulate the SPG with low-frequency impulses, which interferes with a reflex loop that causes the symptoms associated with a cluster headache. [Markus] has been using the implant for years, but now its manufacturer has rolled up operations, leaving him with a transmitter in need of maintenance and the possibility of facing his debilitating headaches once again.

The video below shows [Markus]’s workaround, which essentially amounts to opening up the device and swapping in a new LiPo battery pack. [Markus], an electrical engineer by training, admits it’s not exactly a major hack, but it’s keeping him going for now. But he’s clearly worried because eventually, something will happen to that transmitter that’s beyond his skills to repair.

There’s cause for hope, though, as the intellectual property of the original implant company has been purchased by an outfit called Realeve, with the intention to continue support. That would be a lifesaver for [Markus] and everyone relying on this technology to live a normal life, so here’s hoping there’s no need for future hacking heroics. But as the video below details, there is a lot of neurotechnology out there, and the potential for having that bricked by a corporate decision has to be terrifying to the people who depend on them. Continue reading “Hacking Headaches: Keeping A Neurostimulator Working”

A Low Budget DIY Vibrotactile Stimulator For Experimental CRS

Modern techniques of Coordinated Reset Stimulation (CRS), which is usually administered with invasive deep brain stimulation, can have a miraculous effect on those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. However, the CRS technique can also apparently be administered via so-called vibrotactile CRS (vCRS) which essentially means vibrating certain nerve endings corresponding to brain regions that have a large cortical representation.

An example is vibrating the tips of the fingers using special gloves. This is a medical technique and as such is governed by the FDA. With ongoing trials, patients all around the world will simply have to wait. [HackyDev] has been working with a group of people on developing an open source vCRS glove.

This neuromodulation technique seems so promising, that this upfront effort by hackers around the world is simply a joy to see. Patents be dammed; we can work around them. Interested parties can follow the (very long, tricky-to-follow) thread here.

The hardware [HackyDev] put together uses a nodeMCU as the controller, driving eight motor coils via MOSFETS. The finger-mounted actuators are constructed by ripping the electromagnet out of a relay and mounting it in a 3D printed frame, with a magnet suspended on a spring. This part is mounted on each finger. The nodeMCU presents a simple web form that enables the configuration of the pulse parameters.

A permanent magnet is housed in the spring’s top section

The way the gloves appear to work is due to the way the body perceives sensory input, with a massive bias towards the hands and mouth region, referred to as the cortical homunculus. Each finger has an individual haptic element, which is actuated in a specific sequence with a carefully formed pulse at approx. 250 Hz.

This appears to activate similar in-brain effects as traditional (and invasive) DBS therapy by effectively de-synchronizing certain over-synchronized brain pathways and alleviating the overactive ß-wave activity in the brain. And this calms the tremors as well as many other PD symptoms. It’s all very exciting stuff, and we’ll be following this story closely.

For more on the backstory check out the 2017 paper by Peter A. Tass, as well as this later one, and this one. We’ve seen some recent success with diagnosing or at least detecting PD, by smell as well as via audio, so the future might look a little brighter for quite a number of people.