Tuning up with a personal trainer or bingeing on bran is fine, but they don’t do much for all our aches and angst. Medical technology keeps trying. Here’s what it’s developing in health, convenience and cosmetics:
•A “Lollipop” for Stress: Instead of popping a tranquilizer, Americans suffering from insomnia, anxiety, jet lag, even depression, may soon reach for a lollipop-shaped device called a Sym-tonic. An anodized metal wafer on a stick, the Symtonic is connected to a Walkman-size battery pack that soothes by bathing the brain in a weak electromagnetic field. Held to the roof of the mouth for 20 minutes a day, the Symtonic proved effective in clinical trials. The Swiss-made device will be available within months for about $250. Researchers found it nonaddictive and without side effects—indeed, it is expected to help curb dependence on its major stress-relieving competitor, Valium.
•Blocking Migraines: Most migraines attack suddenly. But about a quarter of the nation’s 16 million migraine sufferers receive early warning signals. For them, a new drug called Sumatriptan promises to block the migraine’s full impact. Based on the body’s natural painkillers, Sumatriptan (from Glaxo) will be available in injectable form in a year or two, and as a pill or nasal spray in three or four.
•A Workout for the Eyes: Personalized eye exercises, already used by athletes to strengthen peripheral vision, are being developed to alleviate poor eyesight in children and workplace eyestrain for the rest of us.
•Bifocal Contacts: A new bifocal contact lens from Aller-gan employs microscopic concentric rings that split light from close and distant objects simultaneously. The brain automatically screens out one of the images. Since the price will be $400 to $800 per pair and some specialists remain skeptical about the bifocal lens, baby boomers aging into the reading-glass years may opt for mono-vision. Used by former Presidents Reagan and Carter, the technique calls for a distance lens in one eye and a close-up in the other.
•High-tech Cosmetic Surgery: Tiny suction needles, refined from tools already used to remove fat from hips and thighs, now extend the technique to cheeks and chin. Fine-tuning with facial liposuction, at a cost of $750 to $1,200 per session, is increasingly done in conjunction with face-lifts.
•Masking Scars: A procedure called permanent pigmentation can hide scars from burns, skin grafts or surgery. Akin to tattooing, it implants hues of iron oxide under the skin.
•The “Abortion Pill”: RU 486, now sold only in France, has proved 95 percent effective in ending pregnancies—when taken within 49 days of the woman’s last period and followed with a dose of prostaglandin. The pill’s likely next markets: England and Scandinavia. So far, a boycott threat by American antiabortion groups has stalled any bid to bring the pill to the U.S.
•Painless Dentistry: A new laser device is gaining acceptance for surface cavities, root canals and periodontal work. The pulsing light beam actually numbs the tooth as it penetrates the enamel. Terry Myers, a Detroit-area D.D.S. who patented the instrument with his brother, William, expects the tool to become available this summer. “Within the next 10 years,” he says, “dentists will be able to throw away their drills.”