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How Could a “Breakthrough” Brain-Computer Interface Help Patients?

How Could a “Breakthrough” Brain-Computer Interface Help Patients?  content piece image
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Brain-computer interface (BCI) developer Blackrock Neurotech has announced that its MoveAgain BCI has received Breakthrough Device designation from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  MoveAgain is a system that is designed to grant users the ability to control a mobile device or tablet, mouse cursor, keyboard wheelchair or prosthetic by using their thoughts. Blackrock is targeting commercialization of the system in 2022.  To find out more about the device and the benefits it could have for disabled patients, we spoke with Blackrock’s chairman and president, Florian Solzbacher.

Ruairi Mackenzie (RM): How does the MoveAgain system compare to other BCI devices? What novel features have helped the system receive Breakthrough Device status?

Florian Solzbacher (FS):
Based on current data in patient studies, we anticipate that key performance metrics that are of critical value to patients in enabling them to be more independent, such as ease of use and the speed, reliability and precision at which a task controlled by the brain signals can be executed, exceeds other BCI devices. A real comparison will however only be possible once other players have statistically relevant or at least some data in human subjects, which we anticipate being the case in the coming years.

While there is ample data in animal models, only very limited data exists for implantable solutions beyond our work. Non-implantable BCI solutions often use very clever AI/Machine Learning approaches and other support mechanisms to help, e.g., with communication and control interfaces, but do not appear to exceed voice and eye tracker-based solutions in their performance. None of them come close to the performance demonstrated by implantable solutions. And it is not clear to me, how in the long run, features such as high-resolution sensory feedback can be integrated into anything that is not an implantable, high spatial- and temporal-resolution/high-channel neural interface.

RM: Which patients, with what grade of disability, could benefit from the MoveAgain system?

Initially, this is for people with severe forms or paralysis/tetraplegia/locked-in syndrome to help restore some of their independence, etc. From there, we will branch out into less severe forms. The underlying implant platform will eventually also be used across a range of neurological disorders.

RM: What level of control does the MoveAgain system give to users? Can you give an example of the tasks they can accomplish using it?

MoveAgain will start off with a simple-to-use, fast and robust interface to a computer system with features that include controlling of cursors, as well as menu and keyboard commands using brain control, high-speed thought-to-text as well as, in a second stage, an interface to control e.g., a patient’s wheelchair and a robotic arm interface.

RM: The MoveAgain system is portable – what innovations have gone into making the device portable and how will this feature help users?

This is the result of essentially over a decade of efforts in miniaturization of all components while at the same time increasing computing and processing power. Some of that has benefitted from the intrinsic scaling of computers and electronics (a smartphone today has more processor power than a desktop 10 years ago). Major parts of it have been due to our internal development efforts in developing novel custom mixed-signal computer chips (ASICSs - application specific integrated circuits) with ultra-low power and size for high-channel neural signal processing, novel packaging and system integration approaches, and, as needed, smaller and more robust electrodes. These advances have now put us in a position to make everything small and robust enough to allow us to take the step from first in-human demonstrations to offering products. 

RM: Now that the system has received Breakthrough Device designation, how will the development of the system be accelerated?

We plan to offer our first commercial product this coming year and will then successively launch new functionalities, capabilities and use cases. Our priority is to serve patients that have been waiting for years for such a solution to get access as soon as possible and to then, step by step, reach growing and more diverse patient populations. Given the overall dynamic and efforts in our space, I would not be surprised if in 10-15 years from now, these types of implants will start to become as common as other implants such as (cardiac) pacemakers, cochlea implants and others, massively expanding new options for patients suffering from neurological and possibly even psychological disorders or who have experienced limb loss/disarticulations due to accidents or disease.

Florian Solzbacher was speaking to Ruairi J Mackenzie, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks