Brain-Computer Interfaces at Home: Interview with Dr. Solzbacher of Blackrock Neurotech
Blackrock Neurotech, a Salt Lake City-based medical technology company, has launched a range of brain-computer interface technologies. Medgadget last spoke with Blackrock Neurotech a year ago about their brain-computer thought-text interface, but since the company signed an agreement with a research institute to develop wearable brain-computer interface systems ( BCI). We hope this partnership will allow patients to use BCI devices from the comfort of their homes.
Currently, such technology currently uses cumbersome and cumbersome hardware, and therefore requires physical visits to research facilities for people who wish to participate in the testing of BCI systems. This limits who can participate in such trials based on their geographic proximity to such a research center. The plan with this new system is to allow a wider variety of people to take advantage of technology and pave the way for a day when these systems will be more common and used as routine assistive technologies for people with paralysis. .
Medgadget had the opportunity to speak again with Florian Solzbacher, Ph.D., co-founder and president of Blackrock Neurotech and professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Utah, about the latest company technology.
Conn Hastings, Medgadget: Please give us a brief overview of BCIs and how they are used today.
Florian Solzbacher, Blackrock Neurotech: Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are devices that measure signals from the (human) brain to control external devices such as computers or prosthetics through thought and can sometimes also send signals to the brain to transmit information such that, for example, invoke a sense of touch, hear, see, etc. One way to categorize BCIs is to divide devices into medical (i.e. helping to restore lost function) and non-medical (consumer) BCIs and into implantable and non-implantable BCIs. Implantable BCIs are so far only represented in medical applications and tend to have much better functional performance, due to the higher resolution and information content of the data obtained by listening to individual neural action potentials and local field potentials with implantable devices, compared to external devices. /non-implantable devices that must rely on decades-old conventional EEG technology that only gets the slowest signals averaged from millions of remote neurons that hold less information.
These BCI systems, composed of miniaturized electronics, hardware and machine learning software, decode and translate brain signals into digital commands, allowing people to control external devices such as computer cursors or robotic arms.
Blackrock’s BCI has been shown to restore motor and sensory function and communication in patients with a wide range of neurological disorders and injuries including stroke, paralysis, ALS, limb disarticulation (loss) and is currently being developed and tested for blindness, hearing loss and other limitations.
Although our BCI has so far only been available to patients in research studies, we believe the technology is ready for real-world use and plan to submit MoveAgain, our first BCI device. commercial, to the FDA in 2022.
Medgadget: What has hindered the development of wearable systems to date?
Florian Solzbacher: Some technical challenges have hampered the development of portable systems, namely that BCI systems must be able to record and process a large amount of data very quickly. This usually translates into high computing power and, therefore, high power consumption and heat generation, which is at odds with the criteria for portable systems.
In order to create a viable portable system, we addressed it both from the hardware side, through the creation of miniaturized designs with low power consumption and custom microchips that enable lower power consumption during acquisition. or the processing of neural data, and on the software side, with efficient algorithms.
In addition to these technical challenges, there are the challenges that come with bringing any new technology to market – starting with a thorough understanding of real customer and market needs and opportunities, creating pathways to get products to customers, by understanding how the product will be paid for with a high initial investment in hardware and software development, market development, etc.
Blackrock is at the forefront of meeting these challenges as we strive to create the first commercial BCI product.
Medgadget: What challenges do you see in making the technology wearable? Will this require miniaturization of existing components?
Florian Solzbacher: The biggest technical challenge is the trade-off between compute performance and battery life, power consumption, and heat dissipation. It’s similar to the desktop-laptop trade-off, but on a larger and more complex scale.
In terms of miniaturization, many components of Blackrock’s MoveAgain system have already been reduced to the level of a portable system (i.e., attached to an electric wheelchair), but there will be improvements and continuous refinements over time.
Finally, developing a quality user experience is fundamental to creating a portable system. Outside of the lab, how will patients interact with the device? In consultation with people who have used our BCI, Blackrock engaged in a thorough, user-focused design process to ensure a device that is easy for users and caregivers to use and delivers the critical value they seek. .
Medgadget: Will the portable system allow a user to interface only with a computer in close proximity, or will it also be able to interact with remote systems?
Florian Solzbacher: The portable system will allow the user to interact with systems, local and remote, that are connected to the BCI device.
In order to connect a computing device to the BCI system, the user must initiate the connection on the BCI side and approve the connection on the computer side, much like you would need to pair a Bluetooth headset to a computer. Once connected to a computing device, the user can perform any function they want with that device. This can include connecting to remote computers using Remote Desktop for user work, for example.
Medgadget: Will the wearable system require a technician or clinical staff to assist the user, or will a caregiver be able to assist?
Florian Solzbacher: We design the MoveAgain system to be fully operated by the user and their caregiver once it is implanted and programmed. Like other types of medical devices implanted in the brain (eg, deep brain stimulation), we expect that when first implanted, the user will work with neurologists and occupational therapists to develop the mental strategies and device settings that allow them to perform the tasks. they want to perform. After this process, we expect the MoveAgain system to be operational regardless of clinical or technical intervention. However, we also build in all the technical and customer support one would expect with a new type of medical device, so that if the caregiver or user encounters any problems, help is at hand.
Medgadget: Do you see this research as paving the way for BCI systems that fully enable users to use them anywhere? Presumably, this is the ultimate goal of such systems?
Florian Solzbacher: Our vision for this technology is that it is widely available to the patient populations who need it and that it addresses – in a meaningful way – the questions of restoration of function, increased independence and improved quality. life, including the ability to return to work. .
The development of home systems is certainly a step in that direction – to take what has been possible in the lab and put it into the real world for patients.
Medgadget: What are the next steps for BCI technology? Do you think a trading system could be available relatively soon?
Florian Solzbacher: We plan to submit our first commercial platform, MoveAgain, to the FDA in 2022.
The miniaturization of our technology will continue, as will the refinement of algorithms and front-end software, as we work to increase functional capabilities for areas such as depression and pain treatment. Surgical procedures will also become less invasive (depending on the use case), more efficient and automated. We will see more and more clinical centers offering these solutions and health insurance will develop standards around reimbursements. All of these steps lead us to our ultimate goal of bringing this technology out of the lab and into the daily lives of patients.
In the long term, we envision that our neural implants could be as accessible to people with neurological disorders as pacemakers are today.
Here is a short video showing some of the capabilities of Blackrock’s technology:
Link: Blackrock Neurotech…
Flashback: Brain-Computer Thought-Text Interface: Interview with Florian Solzbacher, President of Blackrock Neurotech