A Vibrating Capsule You Swallow Might Keep Weight Gain at Bay

Can’t afford Ozempic?

You might soon have another weight-loss option, in the form of an ingestible vibrating capsule that tricks the body into thinking the stomach is full.

Animals given the multivitamin-sized pill 20 minutes before eating ate about 40% less than usual, researchers report.

“For somebody who wants to lose weight or control their appetite, it could be taken before each meal,” lead researcher Shriya Srinivasan, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Harvard University, said in a news 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.”

The capsule, developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, takes advantage of the process by which the stomach signals the brain that it’s full, which helps you realize it’s time to stop eating.

A stomach full of liquid can also send these signals, which is why dieters often drink a glass of water before eating, researchers noted.

The vibrations of the capsule activate the same receptors in the stomach that sense it is stretching as a result of being full of food.

As a result of those signals, the brain floods the body with insulin and other hormones that work together to aid digestion and provide a feeling of fullness. At the same time, it reduces levels of the hunger-promoting hormone ghrelin.

Srinivasan got the idea for the capsule based on previous research showing that vibration applied to a muscle can induce the sense that the muscle has stretched farther than it actually has.

“I wondered if we could activate stretch receptors in the stomach by vibrating them and having them perceive that the entire stomach has been expanded, to create an illusory sense of distension that could modulate hormones and eating patterns,” she said.

As a postdoctoral researcher at MIT, Srinivasan and colleagues designed the mechanically vibrating pill.

When the pill reaches the stomach, acids dissolve a gelatin membrane that covers the capsule. That completes an electronic circuit and activates the vibrating motor.

In animal studies, researchers found that the pill’s vibrations caused the stomach to send signals to the brain, causing hormone release patterns that mirrored those that occur after a meal. This happened even if the animals had been fasting.

As a result, the animals ate about 40% less food on average than they did when the pill wasn’t active, researchers said.

The pills passed harmlessly through the animals’ digestive tract within four or five days, causing no apparent damage.

The current version of the pill is designed to vibrate for about a half-hour, but researchers are exploring the possibility of adapting it to stay in the stomach longer. Wireless signals then could turn the vibrations on and off.

These pills could provide a less expensive option to pricey weight loss drugs like Ozempic and Zepbound, researchers said.

“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.”

Researchers next plan to explore ways to scale up production of the capsules, in preparation for clinical trials in humans.

The new study was published Dec. 22 in the journal Science Advances.

More information

The National Institutes of Health has more about weight-loss drugs.

SOURCE: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, news release, Dec. 22, 2023