We’ve been connecting brains to computers for longer than you’d expect. These 3 companies lead the way


Since its founding in 2016, Elon Musk's brain-computer interface (BCI) company Neuralink has had its moments in biotech news.

Whether it was the time Musk promised his “link” would let people communicate telepathicallyor when the entire company was under investigation for potentially offensive the Animal Welfare Act, the hype surrounding Neuralink means that it is often the first mental reference people have for BCI technology.

But BCIs have been around a lot longer than you'd expect. Musk's is just one in a growing list of companies dedicated to developing this technology. Let's take a look back at some BCI milestones over the past few decades and where they might lead us.

A growing sector

Brain-computer interfaces are devices that connect the brain to a computer so that the user can perform some kind of action using their brain signals.

Many high-profile companies entered the BCI space in the 2010s, backed by millions of dollars in investment. The American company was founded in 2016 Core began by researching implantable devices, before switching to focus on non-invasive techniques that do not require surgery.

Even Facebook gave BCIs a shot, with an ambitious plan to create a headset that would let users type 100 words per minute. But it stopped this research in 2021 to focus on other types of human-computer interfaces.

First contact

The earliest BCIs were developed in the 1970s and were relatively simple, Used on cats and other animals to develop communication pathways. The first device implanted in a human was developed by Jonathan Wolpaw in 1991and allowed its user to control a cursor with their brain signals.

Advances in machine learning over the years paved the way for more sophisticated BCIs. These can control complex devices, incl robotic limbs, wheelchairs and exoskeleton. We've also seen devices getting smaller and easier to use thanks to wireless connectivity.

Like many newer BCI devices, Neural link has not yet received approval for clinical trials of its invasive implant. Its most recent application to the US Food and Drug Administration was rejected.

However, there are three notable groups conducting clinical trials that are worth keeping an eye on.

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1. BrainGate

Founded in 1998 in Massachusetts BrainGate the system has been in place since the late 1990s. This makes it one of the oldest advanced BCI implant systems. Its device is placed in the brain using microneedles, similar to the technology used by Neuralink.

BrainGate's devices are probably the most advanced when it comes to BCI functionality. One of its wired devices offers a typing speed of 90 characters per minute, or 1.5 characters per second. A study published in January released results from data collected over 17 years from 14 participants.

During this time, there were 68 cases of “side effects” including infection, seizures, surgical complications, irritation around the implant and brain damage. However, the most common event was irritation. Only six of the 68 incidents were considered “serious”.

In addition to communication applications, BrainGate has also achieved robot control for self-feeding.

2. UMC Utrecht

The University Medical Center in Utrecht, the Netherlands, was the first to achieve completely wireless implantable BCI technology that patients could take home.

Its device uses electrocorticography-based BCI (ECoG). Electrodes in the form of metal discs are placed directly on the surface of the brain to receive signals. They connect wirelessly to a receiver, which in turn connects to a computer.

Participant in a clinical trial which ran from 2020 to 2022 could take the device home and use it every day for about a year. It allowed them to control a computer screen and type at a speed of two characters per minute.

Although this writing speed is slow, future versions with more electrodes are expected to perform better.

3. Synchron (originally SmartStent)

Synchronous was founded in 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. In 2019, it became the first company to be approved for clinical trials in Australia. Then in 2020, it became the first company to receive FDA approval to run clinical trials with a permanently implanted BCI—and finally did so with a American patient this year.

Synchron's approach is to bypass full brain surgery by using blood vessels to implant electrodes in the brain. This minimally invasive approach is similar to other stenting procedures routinely performed in clinics.

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Synchron's very small “stentrode” can be implanted with a minimally invasive procedure.

Synchron's device is placed in the brain near the area that controls movement, and a wireless transmitter is placed in the chest. This transmitter then transmits brain signals to a computer.

First clinical results has shown no negative effects and a functionality of 14 characters per minute with both BCI and eye tracking. Results were not reported for BCI use alone.

While its unit efficiency could be improved, Synchron's approach means it is leading the way in achieving a low barrier to entry. By avoiding the need for full brain surgery, it helps bring BCI implantation closer to being a day procedure.

Read more:
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The benefits must outweigh the risks

The history of BCI reveals the enormous challenges involved in developing this technology. These are compounded by the fact that experts still do not fully understand the connections between our neural circuits and thoughts.

It is also unclear which BCI features consumers will prioritize going forward, or what they would be willing to sign up for. Not everyone will happily opt for an invasive brain procedure—yet the systems that do not require this collect “noisy” data that is not as efficient.

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Electroencephalogram (EEG)-based BCIs do not require surgery, but being less invasive means they are also less effective.

Answers will emerge as more devices gain approval for clinical trials and research is published on the results.

Importantly, developers of these technologies must not rush through trials. They have a responsibility to be transparent about the safety and effectiveness of their devices and to report on them openly so that consumers can make informed decisions.

The conversation

Sam John receives funding from US Department of Defence, NHMRC, DJPR Vic Government.
Sam John is an inventor on patents relating to the Stentrode technology and brain machine interface, licensed to Synchron through the University of Melbourne.

Originally published in The conversation.

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