An array of precision neuroscience
Source: Precision Neuroscience
The human cerebral cortex consists of six cell layers, but at Precision Neuroscience, a team of scientists and engineers is working to build a device that resembles a seventh.
The device is called Layer 7 cortical interface, and it’s a brain implant that aims to help paralyzed patients operate digital devices using only neural signals. This means that patients with severe degenerative diseases like ALS will regain the ability to communicate with their loved ones by moving cursors, typing and even accessing social media with their minds.
Layer 7 is an electrode array that resembles a piece of tape and is thinner than a human hair, which helps it conform to the surface of the brain without damaging any tissue.
Precision, founded in 2021, is one of many companies in the emerging brain-computer interface, or BCI, industry. A BCI is a system that decodes brain signals and translates them into commands for external technology, and several companies have successfully created devices with this capability.
Precision was co-founded by Benjamin Rapoport, who also co-founded Elon Musk’s company BCI, Neuralink and Michael Mager. But while Neuralink’s BCI is designed to be implanted directly into brain tissue, Precision relies on a surgical technique that is designed to be less invasive.
Stephanie Ryder of Precision Neuroscience inspects the company’s microelectrode array
Source: Precision Neuroscience
To implant the Layer 7 array, the surgeon makes a very thin slit in the skull and slides the device like a letter into a mailbox. Mager, who is also CEO of Precision, said the slit is less than a millimeter thick – so small that patients don’t even need to shave their hair for the procedure.
“I think that’s a big advantage compared to technologies that require, for example, a craniotomy, removing a significant part of the skull, which takes a long time and has a high risk of infection,” he told CNBC. “I’ve never met anyone who wanted a hole in their skull.”
The nature of the procedure allows Precision to easily increase the number of electrodes in the array, which Mager says will eventually allow the device to be used for neurological applications beyond paralysis.
The procedure is also reversible if patients decide they no longer want the implant or want newer versions in the future.
“When you start thinking about bringing this to larger patient populations, the risk-reward ratio of any procedure is a major consideration for anyone considering a medical technology,” Mager said. “If your system is either irreversible or potentially damaging upon explantation, it just means that the commitment you’re making to get the implant is much greater.”
Jacob Robinson, associate professor of electrical engineering at Rice University and founder of BCI company Motif Neurotech, said Precision is making exciting strides in the minimally invasive BCI space. He said it’s not just patients who have to weigh the risks and benefits of the procedure, but so do doctors and insurance companies.
Robinson said doctors have to weigh procedures quantitatively and based on existing literature, while insurance companies have to weigh the cost to their patients, so less invasive surgery makes all three parties easier.
“It’s lower risk, but it also means there’s an opportunity to treat more people, there’s more adoption,” he said.
But because the device isn’t inserted directly into brain tissue, Robinson said the resolution of brain signals won’t be as strong as it is in some other BCI devices.
“You get much better resolution than you would outside the skull, not as high a resolution as you get into the tissue,” he said. “But there’s a lot you can do with that kind of medium scale.”
Precision has successfully used its Layer 7 device to decode neural signals in animals, and Mager said it hopes to receive FDA approval to test the technology in humans in the coming months.
The company announced a $41 million Series B funding round Wednesday, bringing it to $53 million in less than two years. The funding will allow Precision to refine its product, hire more employees and accelerate toward FDA regulatory review, a goal Mager said Precision is working toward quickly.
“We don’t want the next 15 years to be like the last 15 years, when it helps a few dozen people.” So I think we are in a hurry,” he said. “What we hear all the time [from patients] is, “We want this, and we want it sooner rather than later.”
Mager said he thinks this year is proving to be a “watershed year” in neurotechnology and that there is a lot of positive momentum in the BCI space in terms of funding.
While he said he understands the skepticism that exists around BCI and technology in general, Mager said he thinks it has real potential to make a difference for millions of people suffering from neurological conditions.
“I think the brain is in many ways the next frontier of modern medicine,” he said. “The fact that there are so many people who have neurological disabilities of one kind or another and that we have such crude tools to offer them is going to change. It’s changing.”