BrainTech is the new emerging sector of innovation, and as such, provokes both excitement and fear. Especially since it involves the most important organ of our body, and yet, the one we still don’t fully understand.
It's been a while, however, that BrainTech is a no-brainer for us.
What makes us so certain? In the first place, the real unmet needs that patients undergo day after day in a wide range of therapeutic areas. The importance of the brain in our economy is gaining attention, but brain health is increasingly compromised. Brain disorder is a major concern, as we estimate 1 in 3 people is currently concerned by a brain disorder.
We decided to dedicate a whole series of articles on the BrainTech market, to show the richness that this sector can reveal and address the most controversial topics.
This first article is an introduction to our full BCI study.
What is a Brain Computer Interface?
A Brain Computer Interface (BCI) system is an innovative technology that enables direct communication between the brain and a computer system. It has three main components that work together to make it possible:
Firstly, the signal acquisition component which allows the computer to acquire signals from the brain. This component can take the form of implants, chips or even electrodes. These devices are designed to capture electrical signals from the brain.
Secondly, the signal processing component which processes the signals that have been acquired from the brain. This component is responsible for analyzing and interpreting the data, it also performs vital functions such as noise reduction and feature extraction.
Finally, the effector device component, which is responsible for outputting the results of the signal processing component. This can take the form of screens where the information is displayed, for instance tracking a biomarker; or exoskeletons restoring the function of a member.
Overall, the Brain Computer Interface (BCI) system is a complex system that involves a combination of hardware and software components, all working together to provide a seamless interface between the brain and the computer.
The technology is mature enough to be made available to patients
Since Hans Berger discovered two types of brain waves using EEG in the 1920s, the field of neuroscience has grown exponentially.
Technologies to capture brain signal have enriched our understanding thanks to MRI, PET and NIRS allowing us to better understand the mechanisms underlying the diseases.
We are at a momentum where technologies such as signal capture, miniaturization, materials and AI, brain imagery have reached the maturity to transform science into a product. With this growth, we are able to decode neural activities and stimulate specific brain areas to induce plasticity. These technologies are no longer limited to research laboratories, but are now being used in hospitals and homes. For instance, transcranial magnetic stimulations are now widely used in the diagnostic and treatment of neurology (migraines, chronic pain) and mental health (e.g. major depression).
Brain-computer interface (BCI) systems have the potential to improve or restore disabilities such as neuroprosthetics. To capture electrical signals from the brain, scientists have developed microelectrode arrays that can be implanted in the skull to record electrical activity, transducing recorded information and decode neuronal signals into movements. Researchers are beginning to build robotic limbs and exoskeletons that patients with motor disabilities such as tetraplegia can control by thinking about movement.
Additionally, BCI systems can be used to enhance human capabilities: for example, muse is a neurofeedback device providing real-time feedback to improve meditation experience. BCI systems are also being used in gaming experiences: an example is galea, a device that uses VR (virtual reality) and EEG allowing the user to adapt the experience according to the data captured by the EEG.
Investments are booming
Elon Musk founded Neuralink, receiving 363m$ fundraising to develop technology that connects humans with computers. This helps in making BCI common knowledge, though other players like Synchron present even more impressive results.
The potential applications for brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are vast and limitless.
For instance, in the field of neurology, companies such as eNeura are using transcranial magnetic stimulation (non invasive) that directly targets and signals the brain to quiet the hyperactive nerves thought to be the source of migraine. This solution is an effective, non-drug option (so without the potential associated side effects) to treat acute attacks and prevent future migraines.
In psychiatry, LivaNova is utilizing vagus nerve stimulation to treat resistant depression. Symmetry (LivaNova’s product) uses the natural pathways in the body by stimulating the vagus nerve connected to areas of the brain that control mood. Symmetry works by regularly sending mild pulses through a thin wire directly to the vagus nerve in the neck. Symmetry treats depression differently and is indicated for patients who have not had an adequate response to four or more adequate antidepressant treatments.
It's fascinating to see how the ecosystem around BCIs is being developed and some dedicated funds are emerging like Remind.vc. The playground is now ready to go hand in hand with BCIs improving our lives in so many different ways, and it's exciting to think about the possibilities that the future holds for this technology.
To learn more and discover this tremendous ecosystem, have a look at our study.
What are the next challenges to tackle?
For most of BCI the use cases are limitless, meaning that the same technology could have multiple applications. For instance, Neuralink's promise is to communicate with the brain, allowing for people with paralysis to regain independence through the control of computers and mobile devices. The technology developed by Neuralink could also be used to enhance human capabilities of healthy subjects.
Nevertheless, this point raises the ethical questions related to augmented humans, a well known topic in the Bay Area where one of the leading hubs promoting the transhumanist movement, the Singularity University, is based. In a transhuman era, humans would have control over their evolution by a series of deliberate transformations, questioning the very principle of natural evolution. But we are not there yet, and all this remains very hypothetical. The real issue today is to be able to help patients and ameliorate their quality of life thanks to these technologies.
As you will have understood, the initiatives that are multiplying are very exciting. The impact of these technologies can be a real game-changer for patients. Fortunately, some funds are emerging to help startups tackle these challenges and bridge the gap between research center and public care.