Neuralink and beyond: a boom in startups that want to connect our brains to computers

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In September Neuralink, Elon Musk’s brain implant companyhas announced that it will finally start recruiting volunteers for a clinical evaluation to test your device. It goes o.a “brain-computer interface” (BCI) able to pick up the electrical activity of neurons and convert these signals into commands to control an external device, usually a computer. The use of such a device is predominantly of a medical nature: the stated purpose of the company is in fact allow paralyzed people control the cursor or keyboard with just your thoughts.

Competition

But Neuralink it is not the only company active in the field. In 2023, the main competitor of Musk’s neurotechnology company, Sync, demonstrated the long-term safety of his implant. Other startups then tested their devices on human subjects, and several companies entered the scene. “It may seem like a landmark year, but it’s actually the result of decades of work on campus,” says Sumner Norman, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology and co-founder and CEO of the startup Forest Neurotechlaunched last October.

The beginnings BCIs date back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the first devices were tested on laboratory animals. As researchers began to better understand the brain, these systems evolved and became more sophisticated, allowing paralyzed people move robotic arms, play video games and communicate with the mind. From a largely academic activity, BCIs have become the focus of a growing group of companies born after the founding of Neuralink in 2016.”Science and technology have reached a level of maturity where they can begin to have real and astounding effects on the human condition— says Jacob Robinson, the company’s CEO and founder startup Motif Neurotech and professor of engineering at Rice University -. People like Elon Musk have recognized its potential and are investing capital to commercialize this technology“.

Despite the recent controversy surrounding the treatment reserved for the group of monkeys Neuralink uses as guinea pigs, Musk’s company recently gathered more $43 million in venture capitalleading company k over $323 million, according to data filed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Even government investments, especially those of the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency US National Institutes of Health Brain Initiative, have helped move the industry. The latter invested more than $3 billion for neuroscience research since 2014.

A smaller and less invasive device

The latest frontier of this technology focuses on creating more salable devices. Companies are developing wireless systems with the goal of making practical systems available for patients to use at home more compact, more flexible systems and able to record more neural data than traditional ones Field of Utah, a comb device used to detect brain signals widely used as a BCI but considered rather invasive. Synchron, which is based in New York, is experimenting new solutions: his brain implant, similar to a stentit has already raised $145 million since 2016. And in January 2023, the company released data from four paralyzed patients in Australia it had tested, showing that its device could safely transmit nerve signals from inside a blood vessel to the human brain without significant side effects. The signal quality remained stable throughout the twelve months of the study and the device allowed the participants to do so send text messages, emails and browse the web using only brain activity. The novelty of this microdevice is that it does not require invasive surgery to be implanted, but instead is placed through a slit at the base of the neck and inserted into motor cortexthe part of the brain that controls movement through the jugular vein. The device is powered by a small battery placed under the skin chest. Synchron has already implanted the system in ten patients, including six in a US feasibility study supported by the Brain Initiative.

Innovative device

In 2023, other companies were testing new types of devices on humans. In spring, Exact neuroscience, based in New York, implanted his BCI in three people for about fifteen minutes. Patients were undergoing brain surgery for other reasons, and Precision wanted to see if its implant would be able to “read,” recording and mapping electrical activity from the surface of the brain. The startup has since conducted similar tests on two other patients and plans to expand the study in 2024. It was founded in 2021 by Benjamin Rapoport, who was also co-founder of NeuralinkPrecision developed AND field (vector) of thin layers one-fifth the width of a human hair that adhere to the surface of the brain. The technology was designed to be less invasive than implants such asField of Utah, which are located deeper in the brain. Penetration of traditional fields can actually cause inflammation and scarring of brain tissue, resulting in loss of signal quality over time.

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