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Spectrum clash builds around bionic implants

Medical networks around patients' bodies would need to share frequency bands with other uses

By , IDG News Service
November 23, 2011 03:35 PM ET

IDG News Service - The battle over scarce radio spectrum that has embroiled the mobile broadband world even extends to a little-known type of wireless network that promises to reconnect the human nervous system with paralyzed limbs.

At its monthly meeting next week, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission will consider whether four sets of frequencies between 413MHz and 457MHz can be used by networks of sensors implanted in patients who suffer from various forms of paralysis. One intended purpose of these MMNS (medical micropower network systems) is to transmit movement commands from a sensor on a patient's spinal cord, through a wearable MCU (master control unit), to implants that electrically stimulate nerves. The same wireless technology might be used in devices to restore sight or hearing.

However, broadcast engineers are fighting the proposed rule that would allow this, saying TV and radio stations already use one of the bands to broadcast live from news events and this might interfere with the body networks. The main proponent of MMNS, the nonprofit Alfred Mann Foundation (AMF), says tests have proved that these systems can cope with interference as long as all four blocks of spectrum are available.

At the Nov. 30 meeting, FCC staff will present its proposed rules for MMNS in the spectrum and turn them over to the commissioners for a vote and possible modifications. If approved, the rules would go into effect as soon as they are published in the Federal Register.

Frequencies are a battleground

As mobile devices drive up demand for wireless data networks, carriers, broadcasters and technology giants are fighting over limited radio spectrum. Access to frequencies is at the center of complex disputes over would-be hybrid network operator LightSquared, AT&T's proposed acquisition of T-Mobile USA, and unlicensed "white spaces" between TV stations. Though recent advances have led to networks that use spectrum more efficiently, faster connections do require more spectrum. The FCC's National Broadband Plan calls for allocating 500MHz of additional frequencies to mobile broadband over the next decade.

Whereas most of the spectrum debates have cited demand for mobile video and social networking applications, in the rancor over MMNS, there arguably is much more at stake. The microstimulator implants being developed by AMF could be used to treat neuromuscular disorders including spinal-cord and brain injuries, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. The use of wireless networks between implants and MCUs could eliminate the need to implant trouble-prone networks of wires underneath a patient's skin, said AMF CEO David Hankin.

FES (functional electric stimulation) has been used for many years to cause unresponsive muscles to contract, Hankin said. It's one application of the merging of electronics and the human body, called bionics. The new microstimulators are about the size of a small fuse, so they can be implanted right next to a nerve, under local anesthesia, he said. Because of its greater precision, the new technology can gather more accurate input about how the patient wants to move and communicate that to specific nerves. The focused electrical charges hurt less than earlier ones, so patients who have sensation in their disabled limbs feel a tingling sensation at most, he said.

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