Imagine a pill no bigger than a multivitamin vibrating in your stomach. If that’s got your mind in the gutter, better shift it to your gut: such tiny devices are very real and maybe the future of weight loss.
That’s according to research out of MIT, where engineers developed a battery-operated capsule-like device that’s supposed to make you feel full by stretching out your stomach using vibration. When the pill was given to pigs 20 minutes before a meal, the animals ate 40 percent less than they usually did, all the while their bodies released the usual prandial melange of hormones involved in insulin production and appetite suppression.
Details of this potential weight loss “pill” were published Friday in the journal Science Advances.
“For somebody who wants to lose weight or control their appetite, it could be taken before each meal,” Shriya Srinivasan, the study’s first author and an assistant professor of bioengineering at Harvard University, said in a press release. “This could be really interesting in that it would provide an option that could minimize the side effects that we see with the other pharmacological treatments out there.”
So why a swallowable, vibrating pill, you might wonder? It has to do with using stomach distention to trick our bodies into feeling satiated. When sensory neurons in our stomach, called mechanoreceptors, are stretched with food (or copious amounts of fluid), they send signals to the brain via the vagus nerve to let us know to put a kibosh on the munching. This process is a feedback loop: an empty stomach sends fewer signals to the brain, which triggers hunger, whereas a distended stomach conveys fullness or satiety.
Srinivasan, then a graduate student at MIT, wondered if it was possible to take advantage of this physiological system to “create an illusory sense of distension that could modulate hormones and eating patterns,” she said.
After much development, Srinivasan and her colleagues created a pill no bigger than a multivitamin running on a silver oxide battery and covered in a gelatinous envelope that dissolves once in the stomach, which activates the vibration.
Testing it out in pigs, not only did the pill decrease how much the animals ate (compared to when it wasn’t activated), but it appeared to do so by tripping the vagus nerve, resulting in the production of hormones like glucose-like peptide 1 (or GLP-1) and peptide YY (or PYY), involved in insulin production and appetite suppression. This release of hormones mirrored what was typically seen after a meal, even when the pigs had fasted.
In its current design, the pill remains active for only 30 minutes once in the stomach and is pooped out within four to five days, at least as seen in pigs. (Thankfully, it didn’t seem to cause any bowel issues like obstruction or perforation of the intestines.) The researchers hope to expand their prototype to last longer in the body, potentially turned on and off wirelessly as needed.
Considering that diet and exercise are hard to maintain, especially for long-term weight loss, and medical interventions like gastric bypass surgery and the newest wave of injectables cost more than a pretty penny, Srinivasan and her colleagues want their vibrating pill to be an accessible alternative. The researchers do caution further research is needed to assess when the device should be given to optimize weight loss and its safety in humans.
“For a lot of populations, some of the more effective therapies for obesity are very costly. At scale, our device could be manufactured at a pretty cost-effective price point,” Srinivasan said. “I'd love to see how this would transform care and therapy for people in global health settings who may not have access to some of the more sophisticated or expensive options that are available today.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story noted that sensory neurons in our stomach send fewer signals to the brain that we are full when our stomach is empty and distended. However, fewer signals are sent when our stomach is just empty, not distended.