Tech moguls like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are investing in brain implant startups.
They are “always intrigued by things that could change the game,” said one investor.
Brain scientists say research on the brain-computer interface has made exciting progress in recent years.
The idea of connecting computers directly to our brains is leaping from fantasy to reality, and some of the richest and most powerful men are pouring money into space, chasing a vision that technology could one day disrupt healthcare and life. everyday as we know it.
Through their venture capital funds, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates both recently backed Brooklyn, New York-based startup Synchron, which tested its brain stent on seven humans.
Elon Musk has become the public face of the brain-computer interface (BCI) industry with his catchy claims about the potential of his startup Neuralink, even as experts point out that his company’s neural techniques are ordinary, at best. .
Peter Thiel, a billionaire PayPal cofounder, invested last year in Utah’s Blackrock Neurotech, an aging BCI startup that said it hoped to apply for Food and Drug Administration approval soon.
BCIs have been around for about 50 years, but until recently the technology was largely relegated to lab studies and one-off experiments. (More than a decade ago, people who wore BCI caps were already playing pinball using only their minds.) In recent years, BCIs have moved from the clinic to people’s heads, homes, and lives, becoming veritable support.
Synchron has developed what is perhaps one of the most elegant and minimally invasive BCIs: it’s a tiny stent fitted with mind-reading electrodes that is ferried across a key blood vessel to sit next to and communicate with the area of the brain that we use to produce voluntary movements. Synchron’s chief commercial officer told Insider that his device could be launched commercially in a few years, if clinical research goes well.
“Every single day, there’s some fabulous, new, really powerful insight,” said Christopher Moore, a neuroscientist and associate director of Brown University’s Carney Institute for Brain Science. “It’s just a pleasure to be a part of this field right now.”
While today’s research is mostly focused on using these brain implants in the heads of patients with serious medical conditions like total paralysis, or imagining ways to treat diseases like Parkinson’s, the possibilities of connecting brains to computers are well beyond health care. That long-term potential has caught the eye of tech billionaires like Musk, Gates, and Bezos.
“Elon, Gates and Bezos are always intrigued by things that could change the game,” Robert Nelsen, a biotech investor at Arch Venture Partners who has invested in Neuralink and Synchron, said in an interview.
Brain implants are moving from fantasy to reality
A brain-computer interface eliminates the intermediary between your computer and your mind.
By recognizing predictable brain signals, BCIs essentially read your thoughts to get concrete actions, like clicking a mouse. This is how Philip O’Keefe, an Australian who was implanted with Synchron’s device in 2020, uses his BCI to play online games, exchange WhatsApp messages and turn the lights on and off at home.
O’Keefe has ALS, a degenerative condition that makes it difficult for him to use his fingers and hands, but now he has no problem using his mind to navigate online.
“Anything you can do on a computer, I can do it,” O’Keefe recently told Insider using his BCI. “At this stage, I’m a little slower than you would be, but there’s the ability to do almost anything if I want to.”
Learning to use the technology takes months of training, during which both the BCI and the person using it learn to reliably execute and interpret key thoughts: Click here; move there.
However, the possibilities of BCI are not limited to computer clicks or mechanical movements.
BCIs are also being developed to diagnose brain problems and treat conditions including depression through deep brain stimulation. They could also help unlock the secrets about how our brains work, giving scientists the ability to peer inside our heads and look at our neural circuits in real time.
“People are reading patterns of brain area activity and detecting epilepsies before they can strike,” said Moore, Brown’s neuroscientist. “A clear, humane clinical application is on the way.”
There are also applications that go beyond healthcare, such as video games, security, and creating more powerful soldiers.
The BCI industry captures the imagination of tech moguls
The BCI industry has attracted investment from a who’s who of tech moguls, including Musk, Gates, Bezos, Thiel and Vinod Khosla. While most of these billionaires invest in other biotech ideas, the tech moguls have an outsized presence in BCI, which remains a niche part of biotech.
No BCI startups have gone public, and most of their fundraising rounds have been modest compared to larger, more mature biotechs.
BCI’s computing element is also an “obvious bridge” between computers and medicine for people with tech backgrounds, said Arch’s Nelsen. Data from BCI’s research projects can easily appeal to executives more used to looking at the code of the computer than to interpret biology experiments.
“People think of the brain as the most advanced computer out there,” Kurt Haggstrom, chief commercial officer at Synchron, said in an interview. “What tech person doesn’t want to learn and be able to tap into and understand how it works?”
The emperor has trousers but no shirt…yet
Despite the excitement, Moore said BCIs are unable to collect data that captures the full spectrum of what our brains do. BCIs focus almost exclusively on the electrical signals that fire in the brain. But there are many components to how our brains work that aren’t measured through BCIs, and they remain critical to brain function and how our thoughts create behaviors.
“It’s not that the emperor has no clothes,” Moore said. “OK, the emperor has pants.”
While BCIs can observe, interpret, and even regulate what neurons firing in our brains are doing, they don’t capture the whole complex picture of all the dynamic, non-electrical (and as yet poorly understood) cellular networks in our heads that could have an effect on how we process information and behave – everything from what happens inside our blood vessels to how specialized cells called astrocytes communicate.
The BCI is “obviously a huge part of the puzzle,” Moore said, adding, “But think about all the potential dynamics we could register in these other systems in the brain.”
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