Digital devices could be controlled using thoughts
Australian researchers have invented an endovascular implant that could help people living with severe paralysis or neurological disorders to communicate.
The brain-computer interface system, the Synchron Switch, transmits data from the brain wirelessly to control external digital devices hands-free.
The neuroprosthesis device is implanted through the blood vessels in the brain without the need for open brain surgery and in December 2021, an amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) patient used the device to send a tweet using only their thoughts.
Drs Thomas Oxley and Nicholas Opie are finalists for the European Inventor Award in the ‘Non-EPO Countries’ category in recognition of their promising work. They were selected from over 600 candidates for this year’s edition.
The Synchron Switch, which is the size of a paperclip, is an endovascular brain implant designed to record or stimulate the brain or nerves from within the blood vessels, the natural highways of the brain. The device is inserted into a blood vessel within the motor cortex, an area of the brain that controls sensory and motor activity. The device is designed to become incorporated into the wall of the blood vessel like a tattoo.
For the process to work and to achieve control of sophisticated technologies, Opie explained, “a device needs to be able to record brain signals from different parts of the motor cortex, interpret the signals and convert them into digital outputs that can be used to control assistive technology such as a robotic limb, computer, wheelchair or exoskeleton”.
As the Stentrode is inserted via the jugular vein, surgeons can reach the brain region via an endovascular approach, without the need to open a patient’s skull and perform invasive brain surgery. The average hospital stay for patients receiving the implant is just 48 hours.
Oxley is a vascular and interventional neurologist and an expert in brain–computer interfaces, and Opie is a biomedical engineer and expert in neural interfaces. Oxley and Opie’s collaboration led to the founding of Synchron in 2016, a company specialising in developing implantable neural interfaces for the treatment of neurological disorders. Opie serves today as the CTO, while Oxley is the CEO.
The pair’s commitment to patients and combined expertise paved the way to the Stentrode. For the 14 million people worldwide living with neuromuscular disorders, Oxley and Opie’s invention could prove life-changing.
Synchron was approved by the FDA in 2021 to conduct human clinical trials for a permanently implantable brain–computer interface, which are underway. The first patients have already received implants, four people in Australia and three in the USA.
Even though the scientific advances of the invention are significant, Oxley highlights that the resilience of the human spirit and connection between people is paramount to the success of the treatment.
“The motivation of the patient and the relationship with our engineers is critical. Some of our engineers have formed really deep relationships with the patients and it’s been incredible.
“It’s inspiring for the team seeing how much energy these people who are going through the most traumatic period of their lives are putting into this program.”
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