The pitfalls of neurotechnology and pulse oximeters in darker skinned people

Hundreds of thousands of people benefit from implanted devices – neurotechnology achievements. These include spinal cord stimulators, hearing implants and deep brain stimulation (DBS) systems to help with Parkinson’s disease. By 2026, the value of the neurotechnology market is expected to grow to $17.1bn. However, as commercial investment increases, it is becoming more common for companies to abandon device production or close down business operations. Patients are then left without specialist assistance. This is all the more so because it is rare to have surgery to remove implants. Without ongoing technical support from the manufacturer, problems arise over time with software adjustments, malfunctions or a dead battery in the implanted device. The implant becomes unusable and can be an obstacle to both medical imaging and the placement of new implants in the future.

According to the results of a recent study, pulse oximeters – devices that measure oxygen levels in the blood – can provide inaccurate readings in people with darker skin. Therefore, the US Food and Drug Administration is considering the next steps in the regulation of pulse oximetry devices. If the device in question is not calibrated for skin tones other than white, melanin – responsible for the pigmentation of skin, eyes and hair – can affect the way the pulse oximeter sensor absorbs light and lead to erroneous readings of blood oxygen concentration. The pulse oximeter is now one of the primary diagnostic devices in emergency wards.

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