Devotees of acupuncture say the alternative therapy can relieve pain and treat conditions ranging from depression to addiction to gastrointestinal disorders. But it has always been difficult to measure acupuncture’s efficacy, particularly in real time, as the patient is being treated.
New technology developed at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) aims to make acupuncture more productive by pairing needles with small polyester patches outfitted with silicon chips and wireless technology. KAIST researchers say this "smart acupuncture" system can track patient responses in real time—via simple software—at a low cost of around $10.
KAIST student Kiseok Song thought up smart acupuncture while nursing a soccer injury. He received electro-acupuncture, which combines acupuncture and electrical stimulation, on his ankle but, as a science and engineering student might be, was frustrated by the lack of objective data about the treatment.
In conventional electro-acupuncture, which was popularized in the 1970s, wires run from an external power supply and connect to acupuncture needles with clips. Acupuncturists use the wires to deliver electrical stimulation via the needles. The electric current removes the need to manually flick or twist acupuncture needles to maximize the treatment’s effects. But some purists complain that the weight of the clips and wires can bend and shift slender acupuncture needles. And the many parts make the overall system bulky and pricy.
Song had already been developing electro-acupuncture technology for his electrical engineering PhD In 2010, he decided to apply his engineering skills to show the "real-time status" of a patient’s electro-acupuncture treatment.
After two years of tinkering, Song came up with a smart acupuncture system that replaces electro-acupuncture’s heavy wires, clips, and external power supply with wirelessly connected patches. Practitioners place the lightweight patches wherever they wish to treat their patients and connect the patches to acupuncture needles via conductive thread and Velcro. Small batteries on the patches power the needles through integrated circuits, transforming them into electric needles. The patches, which are about the size of a dollar coin, wirelessly measure the patients’ reactions and send data to tracking programs that run on a smartphone or computer.
The goal is to modernize acupuncture in a way that preserves its basic methodology. Applications range from medical treatments (pain relief, muscular diseases, nervous diseases, skin diseases) to non-medical (obesity and skin care). "Regular acupuncture is very one-sided," notes KAIST Professor Hoi-Jun Yoo, who oversees Song’s research. "Practitioners remove their needles after 30 minutes, but there is no way to quantify the quality of treatment."
In this new smart acupuncture, both practitioners and patients can receive data feedback. Each patch features a multimodal sensor designed by Song that measures electromyography (EMG), the electrical activity of muscles. Acupuncturists can monitor their patients’ EMG signals and body temperature on computers or phones and modify the electric current to achieve the desired result; patients can see that the needles are having some real physiological effect. Yoo and Song say the real-time monitoring should also make electro-acupuncture safer and more effective than ever before.
Smart acupuncture will also be much cheaper than current electro-acupuncture. Conventional electro-acupuncture relies on control consoles to manage the needles’ electric voltage. Those controllers typically cost around $1,000, according to Yoo. He says the smart acupuncture system, which replaces controllers with wireless control software, will cost about $10 per patch.
To further drive down costs, Song’s EMG tracking software can replace the pricy oscilloscopes acupuncturists typically use to display EMG signals. And since the smart acupuncture patch has a removable battery and a covered chip, it is water-resistant and could be re-used by the same patient.
The low cost and high portability of smart acupuncture has Yoo and Song hoping for international adoption. For maximum energy efficiency and affordability, smart acupuncture employs the human body (instead of wireless technologies like Bluetooth or Zigbee) to transmit signals, a communication method known as body area network or body channel communication. The setup makes it possible to deliver electro-acupuncture without special facilities, which could make it attractive to developing countries and new practitioners.
Yoo contends that a number of acupuncturists will see the benefits, regardless of age or nationality, because the system is easy to use. "People normally think of semiconductor technology as very advanced but this is a friendly application," he says. Though acupuncture is still most prevalent in East Asian countries like China and Korea, Yoo and Song say they have received queries about the system from the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. is estimated to have more than 10,000 certified acupuncturists.
Widespread access to smart acupuncture is a few months off, as KAIST is still negotiating how to mass-produce the components. Yoo says the school is talking to business partners including acupuncture needle manufacturers and expects the system to be commercialized in early 2013.