The gadget reduces pigs’ food intake by 40%, but some experts doubt it would be effective for people.
Individuals who are attempting to shed pounds go on strict diets, get their tummies surgically shaved, or shell out big bucks for fancy new medications like Ozempic.
A more delicate and possibly less expensive alternative has now been discovered by researchers: a vibrating tablet that stimulates the stomach’s nerve endings to signal the brain when it’s time to quit eating.
Pigs’ food intake is reduced by the capsule—which was disclosed in Science Advances today—without having any noticeable negative effects. Scientists are currently working to transform it into a human obesity treatment.
According to Guillaume de Lartigue, a neurobiologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center who was not involved in the work, “it’s a credible and ingenious approach.” “The evidence seems to be very strong.” However, some specialists continue to doubt the pill’s suitability as a weight-loss medication.
When we eat, the stomach expands, activating nerve endings in the wall of the organ that communicate with the brain. These cues encourage us to move away from the dinner table because they make us feel full. Scholars have endeavored to devise obesity therapies that capitalize on this phenomenon. One method is to create a feeling of fullness in the stomach by inserting a balloon filled with fluid.
An implanted gadget that stimulates the vagus nerve, which sends impulses from the stomach to the brain, is an additional choice.
But as the stomach grows accustomed to continuous stretching, the balloons may lose their effectiveness over time, and some patients have even passed away from them. Surgery is necessary for the nerve-stimulating devices, and weight reduction from them doesn’t seem to be significant.
Therefore, in the latest study, a team led by gastroenterologist and biomedical engineer Giovanni Traverso of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and biomedical engineer Shriya Srinivasan of Harvard University came up with an alternative: a 31-by-10-millimeter pill that contains a tiny motor and battery. The tablet contains a gel stopper that prevents the motor from turning on. However, when the gel comes into contact with stomach acid, it dissolves quickly, and the motor turns on. The pill shakes for approximately 38 minutes after that, which is about how long it would stay in the stomach. The theory put forth by the researchers was that these vibrations would activate the nerve endings that sense stretch and indicate fullness.
The researchers put the tablet into the stomachs of young pigs that were roughly the same size and weight as people in order to test it. The fact that the vibrations induced a firing pattern strikingly comparable to that of the animals’ swollen stomachs when the investigators recorded the electrical activity of a segment of the vagus nerve suggests that the pill was stimulating the nerve endings in the organ. The device appears to provide additional stimulation as it rotates while pulsating in the folds of the stomach lining.
Researchers Srinivasan, Traverso, and associates found that the pigs’ hormone levels changed in response to the tablet in many of the same ways as when they ate a meal, including an increase in insulin and a drop in the hormone that causes hunger, ghrelin. With one of the medications in their bellies, the scientists also kept an eye on how much food the pigs devoured. They discovered that the animals consumed roughly 40% less food than the pill-free controls.
Pigs given the tablets were less active than the controls, particularly after meals. Like a food coma, according to Srinivasan. She also points out that the animals behaved properly in other situations, indicating that they weren’t disturbed by the tablets. The scientists looked for additional potential adverse effects, like vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach lining inflammation, but they were not found.
The pill was anchored inside the animals’ stomachs during the majority of the studies. However, they also timed how quickly the gadgets moved through the animals’ digestive systems and discovered that they were eliminated after roughly four days.
Clinical psychologist Tom Hildebrandt, who investigates weight loss therapies at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, describes his attitude toward the strategy as “hopeful but cynical.” Similar capsules are already being used to diagnose diseases; therefore, the tablet is probably “low-risk,” he argues.
However, before the tablet can be developed into a practical weight loss tool, researchers need to find the answers to a few problems. For instance, he claims that nobody can predict how a vibrating tablet will feel in a person’s stomach. “It is unbearable for a pig to tell you.” Furthermore, he notes that in obese people, the sensitivity of the stomach nerve endings to stretching can decrease. It is unknown if they will react to the pill’s stimulation in the same way as people who are not obese.
The largest challenge, according to psychologist Allan Geliebter, who also researches obesity at Mount Sinai, is the size of the capsules. He claims the tablets are the same size as the largest capsules that patients already use.
Patients would probably have to swallow two times a day to regulate their appetite. “I don’t see anyone engaging in this.”The strategy “may be developed further to the point where it could be used as a treatment.”However, it’s not there yet,” he remarks.
Another thing to think about is whether, in light of the effectiveness of glucagon-like peptide-1 agonists like Ozempic, new, mechanical weight reduction treatments are required. However, de Lartigue notes that those medications can have negative side effects, are costly, and are not always effective. He states, “I think there is a place” for a substitute such as the vibrating tablet.
According to Traverso and Srinivasan, their goals are to improve the tablet and learn more about how the body responds to it. For example, because the pigs they studied were still developing, they were unable to show that it causes weight reduction.
The researchers plan to investigate the tablet in dogs because their stomachs resemble those of humans more than humans, in an effort to find a solution. “We could be [testing] in humans in two to three years,” adds Traverso, if they are able to secure money for this study.