WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
People with paralysis or nervous disorders could soon be regaining their movement thanks to a revolutionary new form of wireless brain machine interface.
Imagine if a tiny matchstick sized brain implant could circumvent damaged spinal cords and help paralysed people, and anyone for that matter with a neurological condition, like ALS Syndrome, which is also known as Locked In Syndrome because patients minds are basically locked into their immobile bodies, become mobile again using nothing else than the power of their thoughts.
The futuristic technology in question, whose ardent supporters include Barack Obama, is a tiny device containing a tangle of electrodes, and it’s already been shown to successfully record neural activity in sheep. Now though, thanks to a $10 Million injection of cash, the company behind the breakthrough tech, Synchron Medical, have announced they’ll be trialling the technology on five human volunteers as early as this September, according to Nick Opie, a biomedical engineer at the University of Melbourne and the Australian project’s CTO.
“Our aim is to return mobility, independence and communication to some of these men and women,” Opie said. “We are using the device to extract information that has already been generated by the brain and to bypass the damaged nerves.”
Other research groups have similar ideas. Neuralink, the startup co-founded by billionaire Elon Musk, is developing ultra-high bandwidth Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI) fashioned on a fancy piece of technology called the Neural Lace that wraps an atom thin sheath around a person’s brain to, in that case, help them connect with everything from prosthetic limbs to computers and Artificial Intelligence (AI) agents in the cloud. And not to be left out Facebook’s research unit Building 8 is working on other types of BMI devices to, on the one hand, turn Facebook into the world’s first telepathic social network, and on the other, let users send WhatsApp messages using just their mind. And you thought social media was crazy today…
In the Stentrode’s case it’s made of electrodes on an expandable mesh stent that’s inserted into a blood vessel atop the motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement, via a thin catheter inserted in the groin. Ouch. And once in position, the catheter is withdrawn, enabling the stentrode to expand against the vessel wall, creating a hollow, cigar-shaped wire tube that records brain activity.
The installation procedure is virtually identical to that used by neuro-radiologists to remove blood clots from stroke patients, and can be done in about 30 to 40 minutes, Opie said. Made from a nickel and titanium alloy, the stent is flexible with high tensile strength, enabling it to be maneuverered through blood vessels without the need for any form of invasive surgery – a breakthrough in itself…
“The avenue that we have chosen avoids any open-brain surgery,” Opie said. “A lot of other technologies require removal of the skull, and that’s risky. We are avoiding that by going through the veins.”
While the approach is less invasive than brain surgery, its potential to tap neural signals may be limited by its placement, since it can only be implanted in blood vessels large enough to support the stent, said Newton Howard, professor of computational neurosciences and neurosurgery at the University of Oxford in England. The stent dilates to 4 millimeters.
“A successful technology should be more versatile in that it can be implanted anywhere in the brain, not just along pre-existing vasculature,” Howard said in an email.
There is also at least a theoretical risk of the device causing blockages and, therefore, increasing the risk of stroke, he said, adding that this may see the device deemed inappropriate or “contraindicated” for individuals predisposed to the condition.
“Rather than this overtaking present technology, I believe this will become a staple of the upcoming generation of brain machine interface technology,” said Howard, who is also chairman of the Brain Sciences Foundation and studies the development of functional brain and neuron interfacing. “The stentrode is fundamentally different from other technology.”
The technology was developed by researchers at the University of Melbourne, the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, with funding from DARPA, who are also trying to tinker with technology to let people communicate telepathically, as well as upload and download information from their brains, and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.
There are an estimated 100,000 American veterans with a spinal cord injury or disease, according to the Paralyzed Veterans of America, a congressionally chartered veterans service organisation. The technology “has the potential to transform the lives of our wounded warriors and others with disabilities,” said President Barack Obama said in April 2016.
Once safety in humans has been established with the first trial, Synchron will look to enroll about 30 people in a global trial possibly in 2019, Opie said, adding that it’s too early to estimate how much the device will cost.
“The company was started up to make sure that, once it passed the first-in-human trials, it would have a very clear way to market and be made available to people who need it,” he said.
A subsequent phase of development will investigate the potential for the stentrode to be used for other brain-related disorders, including epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease.
“For any brain technology to succeed, it’s really all about the data: do they show efficacy, with a minimum of side effects?” said Edward Boyden, a professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, “That’s the burden that any new brain technology faces.”