This brain-computer interface helps paralyzed individuals type using only their minds
Imagine a world where our brains can dictate action without using our limbs. Contemplating this reality is mind-boggling, considering the technology that would be required to translate neurological signals into movement. It seems too good to be true in our lifetime, but Salt Lake City-based Blackrock Neurotech begs to disagree.
Lauded as the “world’s most advanced brain-computer interface company,” Blackrock Neurotech is the first to provide tetraplegic patients the ability to control robotic limbs directly from and with the brain—and the first to enable patients who have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to communicate again via an auditory speller directly controlled by their mind.
After acquiring $10 million during its last funding round in May, Blackrock Neurotech has announced the expansion of its brain-computer interface (BCI) platforms toward larger clinical studies and innovative bench research. “Blackrock is at the forefront of making BCI in humans a reality,” says Marcus Gerhardt, co-founder and CEO at Blackrock. “Dozens of human patients are currently using our implants and technology to accomplish things directly with their minds that were unimaginable ten years ago. We have spent over a decade developing our technology with several hundred of the world’s leading research institutions and over 20 clinical partner centers.”
The scope of the problem Blackrock wants to solve is large, Gerhardt says—nearly one in six people suffer from neurological disorders. Healthcare costs outweigh cancer and cardiovascular disease combined.
“At a basic level, we are very focused on restoring function to patients—helping them walk, talk, see, and hear again,” Gerhardt says. “But beyond that, we also had patients who’ve used their devices to make art and play music. These individuals are able to participate in the things that bring them joy, even when they thought they may never be able to do so again.”
Because of Blackrock Neurotech’s breakthrough innovations in this arena, there are currently 34 human patients worldwide utilizing BCI, and 31 of those use Blackrock’s technology. The first device from Blackrock was implanted over fifteen years ago, making the company’s technology the go-to platform for the world’s leading teams who are actively building BCI applications.
Earlier this year, Blackrock Neurotech announced plans to commercialize a BCI platform in 2022 with the aim of restoring communication function in patients impaired by disabilities caused by ALS, paralysis, and other spinal cord injuries. With this breakthrough technology, patients could create text simply by imagining themselves typing or writing by hand.
“In the future, I can see BCI devices becoming more common than cardiac pacemakers are today,” says Christian Angermayer, who sits on Blackrock’s board of directors. That’s a pretty bold statement, given that the global cardiac pacemaker devices market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 3.1 percent from 2021 to 2028 to reach ~$4.34 billion by 2028.
It has been nearly two full decades since the FDA first cleared Blackrock Neurotech’s first implanted electrode panel (NeuroPort Array), which sends brain signals to computers for translation. The next iteration of this technology is called MoveAgain, which picks up neurological signals from the brain of a paralyzed patient, then parses out their intent to control cursors and keyboards, mobile devices, wheelchairs, and prosthetic devices.
While Blackrock is largely regarded as the world’s leader in this space, some recent competition is splashing onto the scene. Brooklyn-based Synchron recently received FDA approval to begin clinical trials of its Stentrode device, which is inserted into the jugular vein and gathers neurological signals then used to control a computer mouse and keyboard set.
Are we on the verge of sci-fi realities creeping into our tangible world? With the emergence and adoption of BCI in patients worldwide, it certainly seems there is hope on the horizon.
“Our long-term vision is that our implants will become more widely available to the millions of people who need them, much like pacemakers have become more available for people with heart issues,” Gerhardt says.