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Find out more companies interested in growing brain chips

Find out more companies interested in growing brain chips

Little by little, implanting chips in human brains seems to be getting closer and closer to reality. In September, for example, Elon Musk and his brain implant company, Neuralink, announced that they would begin recruiting human volunteers for clinical trials using their devices.

Musk says he wants to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) with humans, but Neuralink's initial goal is to have paralyzed people control cursors and keyboards with their thoughts.

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His competitors

  • However, Neuralink is not alone;
  • One of Synchron's competitors was able to prove the long-term safety of its implant in its patients;
  • Other startups are also testing similar devices on human volunteers;
  • At the same time, other investors began to appear.

This year may seem like a major achievement, but it is actually the result of decades of academic work. I think we are just beginning to feel the effects of this accelerated growth.

Sumner Norman, co-founder and CEO of Forest Neurotech

PCI chips

These chips, known as brain-computer interface (BCI), appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, when they began being tested on animals. Wired.

As researchers began to better understand the human brain, these systems became more complex, going so far as to make paralyzed people move robotic arms, play video games, and even communicate with just their minds (remember Stephen Hawking?).

Previously a target of academics, since 2016, BCIs have been pursued by a growing horde of companies that have sprung up since then, when Musk founded Neuralink.

Science and technology have reached a level of maturity where we can begin to have real and dramatic impacts on the human condition. People, like Elon Musk, recognize these tipping points and invest capital in marketing them.

Jacob Robinson, CEO and founder of startup Motif Neurotech, is an engineering professor at Rice University

Image: Shutterstock

Disagreements and investments

Even with controversy over how it handled the monkeys it used in pre-clinical tests, Neuralink recently secured an additional US$43 million (R$208.94 million) in venture capital, bringing the total amount raised to more than $323 million. One million US dollars (1.56 Brazilian reals). billion), according to the Securities and Exchange Commission (similar to CVM in Brazil).

Part of this contribution came from the US government, particularly the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Brain Initiative of the National Institutes of Health.

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The initiative has pumped more than US$3 billion (R$14.57 billion) into the neuroscience sector since the projects were first funded in 2014.

More comfortable devices for patients

In an effort to market more comfortable systems that allow patients to use them in their homes, companies in this sector are trying to design wireless devices with implants that are smaller and more flexible or capable of obtaining more neural data than the recently released kit from the University of Utah, the comb-shaped, mainstay For BCIs research.

Synchron, headquartered in New York, falls into this group. Founded in 2016, it is developing a stent-like brain implant. In the seven years it has been operating, it has already raised US$145 million (R$704.56 million).

In 2023, other companies will also focus on human trials using new devices. For example, Precision Neuroscience, based in New York, implanted its chip in three people for 15 minutes.

They were undergoing brain surgery for other reasons, and two of them were awake at the time.

Precision took advantage of the situation, as they wanted to know if their implant could read, record and map the electrical activity on the surface of their brains. Since then, it has conducted similar tests on two other people, and hopes to expand its study to other regions in 2024.

The startup was founded in 2021, and one of its founders is Benjamin Rapoport, who also co-founded Neuralink. As a device, it has developed an array of thin films about one-fifth the width of our hair that adheres to the surface of the brain.

It was developed to be less invasive than other implants, such as those in Utah, which penetrate the brain deeper. These compromised arrays can lead to inflammation and scarring of brain tissue, and can even lead to chip signal loss.

Precision stated that it had proven, in its studies carried out in early 2023, that its group is capable of recording brain activity in more detail and with greater accuracy compared to current surface electrodes, which are used to monitor epileptic seizures and draw brain maps.

When patients undergo surgery to remove brain tumors, for example, doctors insert electrodes into the brain to determine the boundaries of areas involved in speech and movement. This way they can avoid these areas during the operation, because they are very vital and sensitive.

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“We have already been able to image the awake human brain at a higher resolution than ever before,” said Michael Mager, co-founder and CEO of Precision.

In October, the startup acquired facilities to manufacture its devices on a large scale. Mager claimed that 11 people were producing a few hundred matrices per month.

Precision's initial goal with its brain chip is to help people with paralysis operate computers and communicate digitally (Hawking again). It is also interested in treating many neurological and neurodegenerative diseases, such as anxiety, depression, and dementia.

Dementia could be one of the neurological diseases treated by BCIs (Image: LightField Studios / Shutterstock)

Much more than communication

Motif Neurotech is already using its devices to fight diseases. Its array, which is the size of a pea, is designed to emit pulses of electrical stimulation in order to restore healthy activity to the brain's electrical circuit. In the future, it will read and react to data related to the member's status.

The Houston-based company said last September that surgeons had temporarily implanted the device in the skull of a patient who was undergoing surgery to remove a tumor.

The results, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, show that the Motiv device can stimulate the brain without actually contacting it. However, the implant remained in the woman's brain for only a few minutes.

The company's researchers also discovered that they could safely and effectively provide brain stimulation to pigs for a month. She wants to help patients with treatment-resistant depression.

“I think there's an opportunity to be less intrusive,” Robinson says. Placing implants in the skull, rather than the brain, can prevent tissue damage, as well as bleeding and infections.

The Neuralink chip can also be installed in the skull, but its thin wires reach the brain tissue. Motif's is located just above the dura mater, the protective membrane that surrounds brain tissue. Its target is the prefrontal cortex, an area affected by more severe depressive disorders.

It is powered by wireless magnetism developed by Robinson at Rice University, thus without the need to use batteries. Simply wearing a special cap for 20 minutes a day is enough to charge the stimulator.

Forest Neurotech also aims to treat psychological and cognitive disorders. It was founded this year and is a non-profit. Its goal is to miniaturize ultrasound in neural implants.

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She has been working in partnership with Butterfly Nerwork, an ultrasound company, on a first-generation device. Forrest's proposal is for his chip, instead of picking up electrical activity, to replicate sound waves to map the brain and provide therapeutic stimuli.

It works as follows: The chip's ultrasound emits high-frequency sound waves into the patient's body and measures the “echoes” received in response. Sound waves travel through different types of tissue at different speeds. Since bone cannot pass through sound waves, Forrest must attach it to the skull.

Norman envisions the insertion being performed through a short outpatient procedure, rather than through invasive brain surgery. He and his colleagues published a proof-of-concept study last month, showing that it is possible to trigger a BCI with ultrasound.

To do this, they used functional ultrasound to measure changes in blood flow in the brains of two rhesus monkeys. Meanwhile, they made hand and eye movements.

The animals were taught to move their hands to direct the cursor on the screen and to move their eyes to look at a specific area of ​​the screen. After they were taught, the only thing they needed to think about was performing the computer control task.

For some applications, it may not be necessary to hack the brain. But a lot of our brains are in those folds and wrinkles.

Robert Gaunt, a researcher in the Rehabilitation Neuroengineering Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh

Gaunt, who studies brain-computer interfaces, is excited about a variety of emerging devices. However, performing more complex procedures may require new technologies that need to be inserted deeper into the brain, but, of course, without damaging sensitive tissue. .

However, for now, it is believed that simple devices are more likely to be effective, as the fewer moving parts there are, the less likely errors and serious problems will occur.

We're at a point where there's enough evidence of the viability of companies stepping in to try to make real medical products and devices. Whether any of them succeed or not is a whole different story.

Robert Gaunt, a researcher in the Rehabilitation Neuroengineering Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh