Advanced PCBs Enabling Smart Biomedical Implants

The field of biomedical engineering has always pushed boundaries in exciting ways. As technology continues to advance at what is essentially an exponential pace though, the improvements we’re seeing in this field are becoming all the more impressive.

We wrote recently in fact about Mathys Medical and the artificial joints it’s producing in Switzerland. These are astonishing creations that exemplify the progress that’s been made in biomedical engineering — combining physical equipment with software solutions and augmented reality support for surgeons to make for safe and effective implanted material. Medical tools like these are enabling us to heal and replace vital parts of the human body in lasting and effective ways.

Alongside challenges like joint replacement and bodily repair though, we’re also seeing some incredible improvements in tech-infused implants designed for various health purposes. Not so long ago, the idea of implanting active devices in the body might have seemed risky or unlikely — save for in the case of a standard pacemaker. And this was largely due to our understanding of electronics. A fair perception in the recent past would have been that any implanted device powerful enough to be reliable would require a relatively strong electrical circuit board. But such a circuit board would typically be too large or too hard to fit easily into a device small enough to be implanted safely.

That was a real and legitimate concern. But it’s one that has been largely laid to rest by the rising popularity of what are known as rigid-flex PCBs. These are advanced printed circuit boards described by Altium as being able to help designers “customize their board to odd enclosures” and provide form factors that are “not possible with rigid boards.” Put more simply, flex PCBs are just what they sound like — more flexible circuit boards that can bend and contour into unusual (and smaller) spaces.

This does not necessarily mean that all medical implants require flex PCBs to function. But design innovations like this — as well as simply smaller PCBs with denser circuit arrangements — have helped to bring about the invention of smaller equipment more suitable for use in the body.

As of now, this equipment mostly amounts to an array of devices designed to monitor certain conditions or track certain aspects of one’s health. For instance, an implanted device with electronic capability might monitor blood sugar such that important information is relayed on a regular basis to a patient’s smartphone or watch. However, we’re still in the early stages of concepts like these, and more comprehensive monitoring is likely around the corner. The Atlantic did a fascinating write-up framing this as a sort of next generation of implanted “microchips,” and discussed exciting concepts like chips that could track heart health, or stimulate nerves in patients. Undoubtedly, there will ultimately be countless functions for this technology. But the basic capability to imbue implants with compatible electronics is the foundation.

There may also be a bolder version of advanced implanting technology beginning to take shape. Though we take most of these ideas with a grain of salt, a 2017 article by Digital Trends pointed to some intriguing innovations that are less about health and more about enhancement. These specific ideas — an ability to “hear” colours for instance — are almost somewhat superpower-ish. But the more general idea of enhancement is one worth keeping an eye on with regard to implanted technology. Things like enhanced hearing, cured blindness, more sensitive touch, and greater situational awareness are not out of the question, futuristic as they may seem.

The bottom line is that with PCBs where they are today, wireless connections becoming more reliable, and new “smart” functions in constant development, biomedical implants are poised to become much more important in modern life. It will be a thrill to see exactly how this happens.

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