Updated 06 February 2019

New implant to calm an overactive bladder

New technology making use of a tiny light-emitting device may offer treatment for an overactive bladder.

An overactive bladder is a common urinary condition which causes a sudden urge to urinate. It may be difficult to control the urge, and this may lead to involuntary urination, called urge incontinence.

Urge incontinence may occur in anyone at any age, but is more common in women and the elderly.

Although incontinence is not detrimental to the physical well-being of the patient, it can have far-reaching effects on their social, sexual, recreational and working lives and cause a dip in self-confidence and body-image. It is therefore important that urge incontinence be managed. 

An implant may be the answer

New technology may offer a form of treatment. A new report by researchers, published online in the journal Nature, focuses on a soft, wireless implant that can help control the frequent urge to urinate.

This implant makes use of optogenetics, a method to control cells with light. The implant regulates the nerve cells which stop the bladder from overfilling by means of tiny light-emitting valves. The research was conducted on rats with medically induced overactive bladders.

Although optogenetics has previously been implemented to manipulate brain cells, research is increasingly focusing on investigating how it can be used to manipulate cells throughout the entire body.

More targeted than previous treatment

According to Bozhi Tian, a materials scientist at the University of Chicago, there is currently a treatment that uses electric currents to regulate the nerve cells in the bladder. However, this is not ideal, as the electric currents target a wide area of nerve cells and affect surrounding organs as well.

The new implant focuses on one specific area and does not affect surrounding nerves. It also only targets the specific area when necessary, according to Science News. The programme detects the urinary urge of the user, indicating to the implant when to turn on the tiny light frequencies. This then zaps the cells, preventing them from sending those messages to the brain.

This study is described as effective for short-term use, but more research is needed to see how the body responds to the implant over a longer period of time.

Other ways to manage an overactive bladder

While the implant is undergoing research and is not yet ready to be implemented, there are other methods to manage an overactive bladder you can use right now. These include:

  • Pelvic floor exercises
  • Bladder training
  • A treatment called "biofeedback", where electrodes are placed on the abdomen and anal areas
  • Medication like imipramine or oxybutynin

Image credit: iStock 


Ask the Expert

Incontinence Expert

Dr Prenevin Govender completed his MBChB at the University of Cape Town in 2001. He obtained his Fellowship of the College of Urologists in 2009 and graduated with distinction for a Masters in Medicine from the University of Cape Town in 2010. His special interests include laparoscopic, pelvic organ prolapse and urinary incontinence surgery. He consults full-time at Life Kingsbury Hospital in Claremont.

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