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By John Schieszer
Medical Minutes 

Controlling appetite with electrical stimulation

Also: Blueberry benefits; mental health and wearables


June 1, 2023 | View PDF

Forget about dieting. A new electrical “pill” may be able to regulate a person’s appetites without any drugs or invasive medical procedures. It is a promising advance in treating eating disorders and other medical conditions that benefit from adjusting someone’s food intake.

Developed by a research team from NYU Tandon School of Engineering and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the pill has been dubbed FLASH. It delivers electrical impulses to the stomach lining once it’s swallowed. This targeted stimulation triggers the brain to modulate gut hormones that regulate hunger.

In a study published in Science Robotics, the researchers demonstrated that the pill was able to affect the release of the ghrelin, an appetite hormone, by using FLASH.

“The gut and brain communicate through a neural pathway known as the gut-brain axis, which regulates many bodily functions, including eating,” said study investigator Khalil Ramadi, an assistant professor of Bioengineering at NYU Tandon.

FLASH is the first ingestible electronic device shown to engage with the gut to modulate hormones that regulate brain activity on the gut-brain axis.

“By using the nervous system to alter the release of certain gut hormones, FLASH can potentially treat a host of disorders related to metabolism and eating without pharmaceuticals or surgery. This is a big step forward in how we approach these diseases,” Ramadi said.

FLASH, with the absence of any side effects, overcomes drawbacks of the conventional methods used to boost appetite. It proves that pills don’t have to contain drugs, and can instead be designed to deliver electrical impulses to regulate physiology. The investigators report that unlike drugs, which have broad uptake in the gut, electrical pulses can be designed to target specific cells and locations for targeted therapy.

By adjusting the type and location of stimulation, the technology may be able to modulate hormones, reducing overall hunger and providing a treatment for metabolic disorders like obesity or diabetes. With further development it also has the potential to treat neuropsychiatric disorders, like depression and substance addiction. Further testing is now underway.

Blueberries pack a powerful hidden health benefit

A cup of wild blueberries a day may keep low energy at bay. Berries have long been hailed as a superfood and are known for a plethora of health benefits. Now, a new study from Cal Poly Humboldt in California is suggesting that blueberries may help burn fat during exercise.

The study, published in the journal Nutrients, is the first to examine wild blueberries’ fat-burning effects during exercise in non-elite athletes. The researchers found that wild blueberries may help accelerate fat oxidation, which is the process of breaking down fatty acids or burning fats for energy.

The study included 11 healthy, aerobically-trained males. Each was instructed to follow a diet, which included consuming 25 grams of freeze-dried wild blueberries (equivalent to 1 cup of raw fruit) daily for two weeks. Participants exercised on a bike for 40 minutes a day. Researchers collected urine and blood before and after cycling, and blood samples every 10 minutes during the workout.

Results showed participants burned notably more fat after consuming wild blueberries. Overall, the research found that consuming roughly 1 cup of wild blueberries daily for two weeks increases the ability to use/burn fat during moderate-intensity exercise, like cycling. While it accelerates fat burning, it also decreases the use of carbohydrates. Burning more fat while using less carbs is significant for athletes, according to study lead investigator Taylor Bloedon with Cal Poly Humboldt.

“Increasing the use of fat can help performance, particularly in endurance activities, as we have more fat stores to keep us going longer than we do carb stores,” says Bloedon. “Saving stored carbs also helps when we need to increase our intensity, often toward the end of the race or training session, or when challenged by an opponent.”

While blueberries are hailed for their many nutrients, one compound (anthocyanins), which give fruits and vegetables their blue, red and purple colors, may be responsible for the increased fat oxidation. Wild blueberries are rich in anthocyanins. Other anthocyanin-containing foods include elderberries, blackberries, raspberries and black and red grapes.

Wearables capture well-being

New technology is drastically changing how health problems are detected. Applying machine learning models, a type of artificial intelligence (AI), to data collected from wearable devices can identify a person’s degree of resilience and well-being, according to investigators at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. The findings support wearable devices, such as the Apple Watch, as a way to monitor and assess psychological states remotely without requiring the completion of mental health questionnaires.

“Wearables provide a means to continually collect information about an individual’s physical state. Our results provide insight into the feasibility of assessing psychological characteristics from this passively collected data,” said first author Dr. Robert P. Hirten, who is the clinical director at the Hasso Plattner Institute for Digital Health at Mount Sinai. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to evaluate whether resilience, a key mental health feature, can be evaluated from devices such as the Apple Watch.”

Mental health disorders are common, accounting for 13% of the burden of global disease, with a quarter of the population at some point experiencing psychological illness. Yet, there are very limited resources for their evaluation.

“There are wide disparities in access across geography and socioeconomic status, and the need for in-person assessment or the completion of validated mental health surveys is further limiting,” said senior author Zahi Fayad, PhD, who is the director of the BioMedical Engineering and Imaging Institute at Icahn Mount Sinai. “A better understanding of who is at psychological risk and an improved means of tracking the impact of psychological interventions is needed. The growth of digital technology presents an opportunity to improve access to mental health services for all people.”

To determine if machine learning models could be trained to distinguish an individual’s degree of resilience and psychological well-being, the researchers examined the data from wearable devices. They looked at 329 healthcare workers enrolled at seven hospitals in New York City. The participants wore an Apple Watch Series 4 or 5 for the duration of their participation. The watches provided accurate measures of heart rate variability and resting heart rate throughout the day. Surveys were collected measuring resilience, optimism and emotional support at the beginning of the study.

The metrics collected were found to be predictive in identifying resilience or well-being states. Now, further assessments of psychological characteristics from passively collected wearable data are being investigated.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

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