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Brain-Computer Interfaces at Home: Interview with Dr. Solzbacher of Blackrock Neurotech

Blackrock Neurotech, a medtech company based in Salt Lake City, is pioneering several brain-computer interface technologies. Medgadget Last spoke with Blackrock Neurotech a year ago about their thought-to-text brain-brain interface, but since then the company has signed an agreement with a research institute to develop portable brain computer systems interface (BCI). This partnership is expected to lead to patients being able to use BCI devices in the comfort of their own homes.

Currently, such technology currently uses large and cumbersome hardware, and therefore requires a physical visit to research facilities for people who want to participate in BCI system tests. It limits who can participate in such trials based on their geographical proximity to such a research facility. The plan for this new system is to allow a wider variety of people to take advantage of the technology, and pave the way for a day when such systems are more common and used as standard assistive technologies for those with paralysis. .

Medgadget had the opportunity to speak again with Florian Solzbacher, Ph.D., Co-Founder & Chairman of Blackrock Neurotech and Professor and Chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Utah, about the company’s latest 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 thoughts and that sometimes also send signals to the brain to convey information such as encouraging the sense of touch, hearing, sight, etc. One way to classify BCIs is to divide the devices into medical (ie helping to restore lost function) and non-medical (consumer) BCIs and into implantable and non-implantable BCIs. Implantable BCIs are currently only represented in medical applications and have better functional performance, due to the higher resolution and information content of the data obtained from listening to individual action potentials in neurons and local field potentials with implantable devices, compared to external ones. /non-implantable devices that have to rely on conventional decades-old EEG technology that only captures slower signals averaged from millions of neurons from a distance with less information.

These BCI systems, consisting of miniaturized electronics, hardware, and machine learning software, decode and translate brain signals into digital commands, allowing people to control the external devices such as computer cursors or robotic arms.

Blackrock’s BCI has been demonstrated in research settings to restore motor and sensory function and communication in patients with many neurological disorders and injuries including stroke, paralysis, ALS, limb disarticulation (loss) and is currently in development and testing for blindness, hearing. loss and other limitations.

While our BCI has so far only been available to patients through research studies, we believe the technology is ready for real-world use and have plans to submit MoveAgain, our first commercial BCI device , to the FDA in 2022.

Medgadget: What has hindered the development of portable systems so far?

Florian Solzbacher: There are technical challenges that hinder the development of portable systems—that BCI systems must be able to record and process large amounts of data very quickly. This usually translates into significant computing power and consequently, large power consumption and heat generation, which is contrary to the criteria of portable systems.

To create a practical portable system, we approach it from two hardware sides, by creating miniaturized low-power designs and custom microchips that allow low power consumption to capture or process the neural data, and on the software side, with efficient algorithms.

In addition to these technical challenges, there are challenges that come with commercializing any novel technology—starting with a deep understanding of actual customer and market needs and opportunities, creating channels to get products to customers, understand how to pay for the product. for high initial investment in hardware and software development, market development, etc.

Blackrock is at the forefront of addressing these challenges as we strive to develop the first commercial BCI product.

Medgadget: What challenges do you envision in making the technology portable? Does it require miniaturization of existing components?

Florian Solzbacher: The biggest technical challenge is the tradeoff of computational performance versus battery life, power consumption, and heat dissipation. This is similar to the tradeoff between desktop and laptop computers, albeit on a larger, more complex scale.

In terms of miniaturization, many components of Blackrock’s MoveAgain system have been reduced in size to the level of a portable system (ie, attached to a power wheelchair), but there will be continuous improvement and refinement over the course of time.

Finally, developing a quality user experience is essential 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 has engaged in a careful, user-focused design process to ensure a device that is easy to use for users and caregivers and delivers the critical value they wanted.

Medgadget: Do portable systems allow a user to interface only with a computer in their immediate environment, or can they also interact with remote systems?

Florian Solzbacher: The portable system will allow the user to interact with systems, local and remote, connected to the BCI device.

To connect a computer device to the BCI system, the user must start the connection on the BCI side and approve the connection on the computer side, just like you need to pair a set of Bluetooth headphones with a computer . Once connected to a computing device, the user can perform any function they desire with that device. This may include connecting to remote computers using Remote Desktop for user work, for example.

Medgadget: Does the portable system require a technician or clinical staff to assist the user, or can a caregiver help?

Florian Solzbacher: We designed the MoveAgain system to be fully operable by the user and their caregiver once it is implanted and programmed. As with other types of medical devices implanted in the brain (for example, deep brain stimulation), we expect that when first implanted, the user will collaborate with neurologists and occupational therapists to develop mental strategies and device settings that allow them to perform tasks. they want to perform. After this process, we expect that the MoveAgain system can be used independently of clinical or technical intervention. However, we have also built in all the technical and customer support that can be expected with a new type of medical device, so that if the caregiver or user experience has an issue, help is at hand.

Medgadget: Do you see this research paving the way for BCI systems that fully empower users to use them anywhere? Perhaps this is the ultimate goal for such systems?

Florian Solzbacher: Our vision for this technology is that it is widely available to patient populations that need them, and that it answers—in a meaningful way—the questions of restoring function, increasing independence, and improving quality of life, including the ability to return to work.

The development of home systems is certainly a step in that direction—to take what is possible in the lab and bring it to the real world for patients.

Medgadget: What are the next steps for BCI technology? Do you think a commercial system will be available soon?

Florian Solzbacher: We expect 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 frontend software, as we work to add functional capabilities for areas such as depression and pain treatment. Surgical procedures can also be less invasive (depending on the use case), more efficient and automated. We will see more clinical centers offering these solutions and health insurance is developing standards around payments. All of these milestones lead to our ultimate goal of bringing this technology out of the lab and into everyday life for patients.

In the long term, we expect our neural implants to be as accessible to individuals with neurological disorders as pacemakers are today.

Here’s a short video that shows some of Blackrock’s technology capabilities:

Link: Blackrock Neurotech…

Flashback: Mind-in-Text Brain-Computer Interface: Interview with Florian Solzbacher, Chairman of Blackrock Neurotech

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