A few years ago, many balked at the notion that a computer grid implanted in the brain might enhance human abilities. This was the notion behind Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which continues to make progress in its pursuits. But as it turns out, Neuralink is not the only company involved in the brain computer interface industry. Several others are investigating the potential of implant technologies as it relates to brain function. And one of the most notable ones currently is Synchron, which was founded in 2012. Not only has Synchron received attention from the likes of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. But even Musk himself has had discussions with company executives about its progress. It would seem that Synchron may be leading the pack in this sector at the current time.
Coming off a recent $75 million funding round, Synchron hopes to advance its human testing in the near future. Already, some trials using the company’s implant technologies have been promising as well as safe. Even the FDA is supporting its progress in this regard. Therefore, a brain computer interface may not be so far-fetched when it comes to practical uses. Certainly, it may seem something out of a sci-fi novel or movie. But in actuality, these developing technologies could help hundreds if not thousands of individuals with disabilities. This may not be the only application for brain computer interface technology. However, it is one where significant good can be done.
“I’ve seen moments between patient and partner, or patient and spouse, where it’s incredibly joyful and empowering to have regained an ability to be a little bit more independent than before. It helps them engage in ways that we take for granted.” – Tom Oxley, CEO of Synchron
Synchron’s BCI Switch
In considering Neuralink’s proposed approach for brain computer interface technology, its hardware is a bit more aggressive. A neural mesh is hoped to be placed over the cortex in an effort to link to computer-processes. But Synchron’s solution is much less invasive overall. Rather than requiring open brain surgery, its implant technologies can be placed using endovascular techniques. In other words, its BCI device can be introduced into a blood vessel near the brain without open surgery techniques. Labeled Stentrode, Synchron’s technologies are much more attractive from a safety perspective. They are also an example of the types of medical devices that will be available in the future.
Because the sensing aspects of the brain computer interface is within a blood vessel outside the brain, it is less sensitive. However, studies have shown that the Stentrode’s capacity to detect brain signals remains stable for at least 12 months. The sensing portion of the device is connected to an antenna that is placed under the skin in the chest. Once brain signals are detected, Synchron’s implant technologies decipher the message and convert it into external commands via the antenna. These commands can serve as inputs into a variety of devices and media, essentially allowing the brain to communicate through the technology.
“There’s roughly about 2,000 interventionalists who can perform these procedures. It’s a little bit more scalable, compared to, say, open-brain surgery or burr holes, which only neurosurgeons can perform.” – Peter Yoo, Senior Director of Neuroscience at Synchron
Benefits of Implant Technologies
It will likely be many years before AI chatbots are filling our minds with data. However, there are many other potential uses with brain computer interfaces currently. Specifically, Synchron has already demonstrated utility of these devices in a small number of patients. In human trials dealing with safety assessments, the Stentrode Switch has helped some with motor disabilities communicate. Patients with motor paralysis from diseases like ALS have been able to communicate with loved ones with these implant technologies. These are the types of uses BCI devices could serve immediately.
In research thus far, Synchron’s devices have helped patients with motor dysfunction text, email and even engage on social media. In fact, some patients have even used the system to manage their banking and finances online and their own healthcare. These are early results that demonstrate the promise of these technologies. It is also enough for Synchron to attract major investments and receive support from the FDA. Seeing the potential. the FDA granted Synchron an investigational device exemption, fast-tracking its research. This further highlights the benefits these brain computer interface devices might offer.
“We meet future patients to talk to about their needs and stuff, and so when you see that, and you talk to these families and the caregivers, you want to race as fast as you can to provide them assistance in their daily life.” – Kurt Haggstrom, Chief Commercial Officer at Synchron
Safety and Future Scalability
As with any invasive neurological implant, there is always concerns about safety. However, Synchron received noted recognition in this regard from a recent study in JAMA Neurology. In the study, the researchers followed patients with Synchron’s Stentrode for a total of 12 months after device placement. In addition to the device providing hands-free texting and email. no complications were recorded. In part, this helped facilitate the FDA’s decisions to expedite further studies of this brain computer interface. It also got the attention of venture capitalists and led to Synchron’s most recent investment supports.
Assuming subsequent human trials also support these implant technologies safety, efficacy trials should follow. The first uses of these brain computer interfaces will therefore likely be in patients with paralysis and loss of motor function. It should be noted that the ability to place endovascular implants is much more scalable than ones like Neuralink’s. Thousands of periinterventional radiologists could be easily trained to perform the procedure. This naturally makes the process easy to scale should significant benefits found. And of course, as such interfaces become better at interpreting brain signals, the sky is the limit. What was once thought to be simply a far-fetched dream may indeed soon be an amazing reality.