Tech billionaires are investing in neurotechnology with optimism. Elon Musk, Brian Johnson and Marc Zuckerberg, to name a few, cite enhancing human intelligence, boosting memory, and electronically sharing full sensory and emotional experiences as their goals. But is money enough to drive a revolution in neurotech or could the readiness level of the technology curtail their ambitions?
From bionic eyes to reactivating paralysed limbs, the clinical potential of neurotechnology is enormous. But if neurotech is to benefit the people who need it most, the research carried out in labs around the world needs to be translated into practical solutions and made readily available to clinicians. To do this takes more than money.
Based in Switzerland, the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering is pioneering a new model in neurotechnology translation. Headed by Professor John Donoghue, who led the early development of brain implants at Brown University in the U.S., the mission of the Wyss Center is to accelerate the development of novel neurotechnology concepts to help people with nervous system disorders.
Figure 1. The Wyss Center’s vision for the future of the BCI to FES systems. The Center is working on a miniaturised, wireless and subcutaneous version of existing technologies that record movement intention from the brain and use it to activate muscles in a paralysed arm.
Funded by Swiss entrepreneur and philanthropist Hansjorg Wyss, the Wyss Center has assembled at Campus Biotech in Geneva the talent and technical resources needed to translate neurotech through the sensitive transition from research to commercial product.
The Center encourages project applications from researchers who have a promising neurotech concept but who are missing a crucial piece of the complex puzzle of device or protocol development. The Center’s WISE team (Wyss Internal Special Experts) provides expertise across the spectrum of neurotech development from clinical neurology and advanced implantable materials to regulatory affairs and IP law.
In addition to expertise, the Wyss Center offers project funding and access to the newly outfitted neurotechnology development and testing facilities at Campus Biotech in Geneva.
By investing in the early stages of neurotech research and development, the Wyss Center hopes to de-risk adventurous concepts and make them more attractive to venture capitalists or medical device companies that could then take them on the final stages of the journey from lab bench to clinic.
Figure 2. The Campus Biotech cleanroom, a cutting-edge environment in which novel neurotechnologies, such as flexible electronics or novel neural sensors can be developed.
Using Thought to Restore Reach and Grasp in a Paralyzed Arm
Among Wyss Center projects currently in progress is an implantable brain-computer interface (BCI) termed ‘neurocomm’. The aim of the project is to overcome the break between the brain and body caused by injury to the spinal cord, brain, or nerves. The project builds on work pioneered by John Donoghue at Brown University, where he founded the BrainGate group, in which a microelectrode array, implanted in the motor cortex of a paralyzed person, detected movement intention and directly controlled a robotic arm via a wired connection. One study participant, Cathy Hutchinson, was able to serve herself coffee for the first time in ten years .
In a study led by Case Western Reserve University, the BrainGate technology was combined with functional electrical stimulation (FES) to enable brain-controlled movement of a paralysed arm .
The Wyss Center is now working alongside the BrainGate group to tackle the engineering challenges of creating and powering a wireless, miniaturized device capable of recording high resolution data from the brain and withstanding the rigors of long-term implantation. The ultimate goal is to combine the neurocomm device with subcutaneous FES to invisibly restore natural function to the arm.
Brain-Computer Interface for Communication
Another BCI project pursued by the Wyss Center has enabled people with complete locked-in syndrome (CLIS) to respond “yes” or “no” to questions via thought.
The current approach combines near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) and electroencephalography (EEG), measuring blood oxygenation and electrical activity respectively, to provide a reliable method of communication for people who have CLIS because of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and who are incapable of interacting with their environment or even moving their eyes.
After a period of training using question with known answers, the participants are asked open questions like “are you happy”. Counter to expectations, the participants in the study, published in the journal PLOS Biology in January this year, reported being ‘happy’ despite their condition .
The next step is to improve the reliability of the device from the current level of 70 – 80%. The Wyss Center team is now investigating options for an implantable NIRS system that could be placed on the skull beneath the skin to record blood oxygenation signals with minimal noise contamination.
Neurofeedback for Tinnitus
Managing the buzz or whine of tinnitus through thought is the goal of this neurofeedback project.
Tinnitus is a widely prevalent and debilitating condition that frequently originates within the auditory cortex of the brain. There is evidence that neurofeedback – the process of using a real-time display of brain activity to learn self-regulation – could be used to help people with tinnitus and potentially other disorders including depression or dyslexia.
If early fMRI trials prove successful, the aim is to develop an implantable to device to detect the electrical activity of the auditory cortex. Signals, wirelessly transmitted to a hand-held device, would enable visualization of brain activity in real time and potentially enable self-regulation of tinnitus.
The Wyss Center projects are diverse and each comes with a set of highly specific neuroscience and engineering challenges. From targeted neuro-stimulation and low-noise neural signal recording to wireless data transfer and long-term implantation.
The Center is addressing these challenges step-by-step. An accelerated ageing facility will test state-of-the art encapsulation methods to ensure that even over very long-periods of time, body fluids will not corrode or leak through to the electronics of this new generation of neurotech.
Novel, biocompatible, neural interfaces are being developed to stimulate, or record from, a greater number of neurons than ever before. These take time to trial and so a high throughput testing facility is being developed, in collaboration with the Haute école du paysage, d’ingénierie et d’architecture de Genève, to test new electrodes in vitro on human neural cells.
Productive collaborations are being forged with creative and inspirational partners including universities, research centers and hospitals both in Switzerland and around the world.
While funding is of course crucial, money alone may not be enough to drive the neurotech revolution and, because of the youth of the Center, time will tell whether the strategy, patience and tenacity will pay off on the long and complex path to an approved clinical device. If it does, the model is sure to be replicated both in neurotech and beyond.
The goals are ambitious but John Donoghue believes that the Wyss Center’s combination of expertise and funding coupled with top-level technical facilities embedded in a fertile neuro-community will give embryonic neurotechnology concepts the best start possible.
- Hochberg et al. Reach and grasp by people with tetraplegia using a neurally controlled robotic arm. Nature, 2012
- Bolu Ajiboye et al. Restoration of reaching and grasping movements through brain-controlled muscle stimulation in a person with tetraplegia: a proof-of-concept demonstration. The Lancet, 2017
- Chaudhary et al. Brain–Computer Interface–Based Communication in the Completely Locked-In State. PLoS Biology, 2017
About the Author
Dr. Tracy Laabs brings over fifteen years combined professional and research experience in multiple life science disciplines including neuroscience, neurotechnology, molecular biology, physiology, human performance, and regenerative medicine. Prior to joining the Wyss Center, she was a Senior Scientist at Strategic Analysis, Inc. where she provided technical expertise and scientific program management support on neuroscience and neurotechnology programs at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Defense Sciences and Biological Technologies offices.
Dr. Laabs has experience in strategic planning, development and management of high risk/high reward multidisciplinary programs, and coordinating interdisciplinary teams of academic and industrial research scientists in the development of neurotechnologies. She holds a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Cambridge (UK) and a BS in Pharmacology and Toxicology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (US).