Photo: Otsuka America Pharmaceutical 



Michael Birnbaum is familiar with the problems of medications: patients know it’s important to take them, but often forget to do so. This is particularly true for his own patients, people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorders. Nonetheless, Birnbaum, the director of the Early Treatment Program for Psychoses at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, has high hopes for the future. He says: “The advent of innovative technological tools is ubiquitous and will help us advance medical treatments.” 

While big topics such as smart healthcare or telemedicine dominate headlines, doctors are focusing primarily on ultra-tiny nanosensors. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved just such a pill for the first time. The pill has an integrated sensor that records if and when it is taken. This medication system, developed by the Japanese pharmaceuticals company Otsuka Pharmaceutical, is intended to help treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression in adults. The pill without the sensor technology was first approved for treating schizophrenia in 2002. Once taken, the pill’s sensor sends a signal to a patch on the patient’s skin. According to the manufacturer, the sensor “is the size of a grain of sand and contains ingredients that are found in food.” The sensor activates upon contact with stomach fluids and then communicates with the patch. Eventually the sensor is digested and excreted by the body. 

While the sensor is active, the smart patch recognizes and saves the date and time the tablet was detected in the stomach—and sends all of this data to an app on a compatible mobile device. The web-based platform, extolled as safe by the company, provides the doctor, caregivers and family members access to the data through the app. However, experts consider the data security of such apps to be not yet fully developed, a particular concern in the case of sensitive medical data.

And whether or not the sensor pill can actually improve pill-taking habits will only become clear from practical experience. Still, doctors such as Michael Birnbaum from New York are optimistic: “It’s only a question of time before new technologies will revolutionize behavior-oriented health care.”