Our brains contain about 2.5 petabytes (2,500,000 gigabytes) of storage, enough to store the entire contents of all US academic research libraries. The human brain is remarkable in that it seems to have a mind of its own. When you learn new things, your brain actually undergoes physical changes. With the advent of Google and smartphones, the human brain has become less likely to bother remembering information because it knows that we can access the information so easily. When you go out and get absolutely wasted, and then can’t remember why you woke up next to a total stranger, that’s not because alcohol made you forget. As it turns out, when we get drunk, our brains actually lose the ability to record memories, in much the same way some of us lose our ability to say no when a total stranger invites us to their home for the night. Our fascination with the most complex organ in the human body has led scientists to try and understand the brain by interfacing directly with it, something we call a “brain computer interface” or BCI.
In previous articles, we looked at how a BCI could mean we no longer have to chicken peck away at keyboards trying to convey our thoughts. We saw that at least 10 startups are working on BCI technologies for a variety of uses. One of these startups, Kernel, is working on chips that can help supplement your brain’s storage, and they say it’s no longer “if” but “when” these chips will be available. Most recently, we looked at the concept of “neural lace“, something that Elon Musk is developing and which should someday allow us to control things with our thoughts. There’s even an open source BCI toolkit you can get your hands on to be part of this movement.
The one need that all these companies have is for a piece of hardware that can read the signals from the brain. Some methods out there include:
- Neural Lace – mesh which covers brain
- EEG – typically a skull cap that you wear
- Electrocorticography (ECoG) – grid of electrodes implanted on surface of brain
- Stentrode – a stent that can read your brain signals
While you may already be familiar with some of these methods, it’s the last one we’re interested in talking about – the “stentrode”.
If you’re unfamiliar with what a “stent” is, then that’s probably a good thing. If you know a lot about stents and you’re not in the medical field, it probably means you have some cardiovascular health issues. Simply put, a stent is a tubular mesh made of metal or plastic that acts as a scaffold in an artery. Here’s what they look like and how they’re deployed:
Now that we know what a stent it, let’s move on to talk about a startup called Synchron.
Founded in April of 2016, Silicon Valley startup Synchron took in a $10 million Series A funding round one year later to develop an implantable device that can capture signals from the brain. The device called a “stentrode” is a nickel titanium composite stent wrapped in electrodes, and then injected into your brain though your neck. The stentrode can then read your brain signals, something they’ve already been able to do successfully with sheep. The technology evolved from a collaboration between the University of Melbourne and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It’s not a surprise to see that they’re backed by DARPA, the government agency we highlighted recently that has their hands on all the cool technology out there it seems. Even former President Barrack Obama was touting stentrode technology in this video short.
Prior to becoming a Silicon Valley startup, Synchron was an Australian startup by the name of “Smartstent” which had been working on this device since 2012. The “acquisition” of Smartstent by Synchron seems to be little more than a name change since all the original players are still on board. One of these players is Doctor Thomas Oxley, an Australian neurologist seen here giving a several minute background of how this whole thing came about:
Perhaps most promising for the startup is the caliber of their Chairman, Martin Dieck. Here’s someone who has co-founded and sold three medical device companies already (2 to Medtronic and 1 to Stryker). Not only that, but he’s a venture capitalist as well having worked before with renowned VC Draper Fisher Jurvetson and presently as an Executive Director at ePlanet Ventures. On his LinkedIn profile it states he’s a “Managing Member” of “Neuro Technology Investors, LLC” or NTI, the firm that led the $10 million funding round for Synchron alongside Darpa. With little to be found about NTI, it’s not hard to imagine that Mr. Dieck has ponied up a fair amount of his own capital to invest in Synchron which is always a good sign.
With someone on board who knows how to sell medical device companies, Synchron is now using their $10 million to begin in-human trials. The plan is to use a catheter to navigate the device into the sacral sinus in the middle of the brain where it will pick up the nerve activity from the motor cortex (that’s the region of your brain responsible for voluntary movements). Those signals can then be used to move a bionic limb or perhaps even an exoskeleton.
So far Synchron has successfully demonstrated the ability to conduct accurate neural recordings in freely moving sheep for 190 days. While the sheep thought about little else but eating grass and fornicating, the results were promising enough for Synchron to decide that humans are next. If you really want to dig in, this paper on “Minimally invasive endovascular stent-electrode array for high-fidelity, chronic recordings of cortical neural activity” provides some additional detail. Synchron is planning a human trial next year at the Royal Melbourne Hospital with 5 patients who cannot move their arms and legs. The trial will involve having the patients think about certain movements while training a computer to recognize the patterns.
While this method of BCI is currently being used for motor control, we have no idea what other applications (if any) this could be suited for. Whenever we think of BCI, we always imagine a future where we can write our articles using our thoughts as opposed to the laborious task of having to type every single letter. Then we think about what a first world problem that is and realize how great it is that disabled people may soon be enjoying mobility, something the rest of us take for granted.
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