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Generally, the technology for recording brain activity is found in research centres and institutions such as hospitals. However, in recent years, knowledge about how brain connections work has been increasing and several private microelectronics companies have become interested in developing new equipment to understand and record brain activity. Day by day, the systems developed are becoming cheaper and smaller in size.
The sum of all these factors brings with it a very positive technological development, which means that they are available to more and more people, especially those suffering from complex diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. Thus, these devices aim to record brain activity and even stimulate it in the search for new treatments.
Today, companies such as Neuralink and Facebook donations are getting closer and closer to recording and collecting data on neural activity through the use of new wearables.
Recently, Neurotech Reports, a consultancy specialising in neurotechnology, estimated the global market value of brain-computer interfaces (BCI) at more than 9 billion dollars in 2020, which will grow to around 15 billion dollars by 2024. An amazing future is therefore expected for these neurotechnological devices if they can overcome the technical adversities they are struggling with today.
Neuralink Corporation is a neurotechnology company focused on the design and manufacture of BCI devices. Although its projects are still in the experimental phase with animals, they are proving to have an important impact on human daily life.
Among its advances is the Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) technique for deep brain stimulation. This technique consists of implanting one or more microelectrodes in the brain of a person suffering from an ailment in order to stimulate the regions where the electrical signals that cause the ailment originate.
These electrodes consist of an electronic device with a battery that acts as a neurostimulator via a small cable coming out of the patient’s skull. The neurostimulator must therefore send electrical signals to the regions of the brain that cause the disease in order to block the electrical signals that provoke it.
However, the greatest advance made by Neuralink is the innovative brain-computer interface technique, also known as BCI, which aims to record the electrical activity of the brain, which is then processed and interpreted by a computer.
Thus, for this technique to be carried out, it requires the installation of specific sensors to pick up the brain waves that arise from the brain’s electrical activity. Moreover, these devices are sensitive enough to be installed in the skull and therefore do not require a very invasive surgical operation for their installation.
BCI technology is still in its early stages of development, but despite this, the applications it is proving to have are virtually endless. For example, a preliminary phase has been tested for controlling the movement of patients with motor disabilities or the movements of robotic prostheses, among others.
The device used to apply BCI is portable and very small, it aims to achieve the interpretation of the activity of the nervous system to help sick people, but at present it is necessary to install sensors housed in the nervous system attached to the device by microcables. Therefore, the device will collect real-time registration of the sensors, process the signals and send them via Bluetooth to the user’s mobile device.
In parallel, Facebook is funding a group of researchers at the University of California to develop an algorithm capable of decoding neural activity related to speech and listening.
Initially, this technology requires the patient to have several electrodes installed in his or her brain so that, as in the previous case, neural activity can be collected and sent to a computer. At this point, the designed algorithm interprets the brain activity and decodes it on a computer.
The aim of this technology is simply to identify what a person is hearing or saying through the use of electrodes that record their brain activity. The medicinal application can therefore make a difference to the quality of many people with speech problems. It is also hoped that, with funding from Facebook, the algorithm can be successfully developed and the technology will be portable and easy to apply.
Today, the first human trials of BCI technology have already been conducted, but until now the major difficulty has been the wires that limit its use. Recently, a team at Brown University has conducted a full human trial of a high-bandwidth wireless neural interface.
The progress that had been made with the intracortical BCI device, the aforementioned device that involves implanting electrodes in the brain and sending signals to a computer via wires, has proven to have numerous successful applications such as writing, moving paralysed limbs or controlling robotic prostheses. However, the limitation lies in the lack of mobility implied by the wires connected to a computer, which also means that researchers cannot test them effectively in different environments.
Now, the Brown University team has developed a wireless BCI device capable of detecting neural signals for 24 hours at a time in a patient’s everyday life. This wireless system is functionally equivalent to the standard wired systems of BCI devices that have been studied for years, but the key is that people no longer need to be physically attached to the equipment, and this opens up a new field of applications and uses.
Going into technical details, the system was designed to work with an interface called BrainGate, which works with two electrodes implanted under the patient’s skull. The transmitter, on the other hand, is about two inches wide and connects to the same port that a wired system would use. Finally, the unit digitises the collected signals and transmits them to a series of antennas located around the space in which the user moves.
The first test was conducted with two patients with spinal cord injuries, both of whom were able to move a cursor in their home rather than in a research facility. In addition, one of the patients was able to record up to 24 hours of his neural activity thanks to the batteries, which have a battery life of 3 to 6 hours.
Until now, the wireless tests that had been carried out had not demonstrated the same effectiveness as those connected to a physical computer, nor had they achieved the same bandwidth. This is therefore considered to be the first successful demonstration of a wireless BCI leading to a move towards the functional use of fully-implanted high-performance neural interfaces.
Consequently, companies such as Neuralink or Kernel are expected to show great interest in this breakthrough to turn neural interfaces into standard consumer technology. The bulky transmitter, the complex configuration of the receiver and the invasive procedure to install the electrodes in the brain are major hurdles to consider, and further research is needed.
During this analysis, the importance of developing neural interfaces has been made known, as not only do they represent an immense improvement in the daily lives of many sick people, but also large companies such as Facebook or Neuralink are investing their money in them to convert the technology into a common and widespread use. Mainly due to these two factors, the market is expected to grow significantly by 2024 and could reach 15 billion dollars.
Among the players involved in the market, Neuralink, co-founded by Elon Musk, stands out, with the aim of achieving great advances in technology for everyday use. It has also made great advances in Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) and BCI technology. However, its tests are still in an experimental phase with animals.
On the other hand, Facebook’s support for a group of researchers at the University of California has enabled the development of a very powerful algorithm for the interpretation of neural electrical signals related to speech and listening. However, it was Brown University that was the first to succeed in human trials of wireless BCI devices.
In conclusion, great advances and improvements are expected in the face of the difficulties that this technology is currently struggling with, such as the complex configuration and the surgery that the patient must undergo to install the electrodes in his or her brain.