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Synchron, a Brooklyn-based brain interface startup, is developing technology that aims to transform daily life for people with paralysis. Their implantable device, called the Synchron Switch, allows individuals with little to no physical mobility to operate technology using their mind. The nascent technology has been used on three patients in the US and four in Australia, with positive results.
Synchron is part of the growing brain-computer interface (BCI) industry, where systems decipher brain signals and translate them into commands for external technologies. One of the most well-known names in the space is Neuralink, founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is also the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, and Twitter.
However, Musk isn’t the only tech billionaire betting on the eventual transition of BCI from radical science experiment to flourishing medical business. In December 2021, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round that included investment from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Synchron is enrolling patients in an early feasibility trial to show that the technology is safe to use in humans. Six patients will be implanted with Synchron’s BCI during the study, which is about halfway through, according to Chief Commercial Officer Kurt Haggstrom.
The company’s technology is inserted through the blood vessels, which CEO Tom Oxley calls the “natural highways” into the brain. Synchron’s stent, called the Stentrode, is fitted with tiny sensors and is delivered to the large vein that sits next to the motor cortex. The Stentrode is connected to an antenna that sits under the skin in the chest and collects raw brain data that it sends out of the body to external devices.
While many competitors have to implant their BCIs through open-brain surgery, Synchron relies on a less invasive approach that builds on decades of existing endovascular techniques, the company said. This approach makes the procedure more accessible and scalable, as there are roughly 2,000 interventionalists who can perform these procedures, compared to open-brain surgery or burr holes, which only neurosurgeons can perform.
For patients with severe paralysis or degenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Synchron’s technology can help them regain their ability to communicate with friends, family, and the outside world, whether through typing, texting, or even accessing social media. Patients can use the BCI to shop online and manage their health and finances, but Oxley said what often excites them the most is text messaging.
“Losing the ability to text message is incredibly isolating,” Oxley said. “Restoring the ability to text message loved ones is a very emotional restoration of power.”
The technology has already caught the attention of its competitors, with Musk approaching Synchron to discuss a potential investment last year, according to a Reuters report. Synchron declined to comment on the report. Neuralink, on the other hand, is developing a BCI that’s designed to be inserted directly into the brain tissue, and while the company is not testing its device in humans yet, Musk has said he hopes it will do so this year.
Synchron’s funding will help accelerate the company’s product development and push it toward a pivotal clinical trial that would bring the company closer to commercialization. Khosla Ventures partner Alex Morgan, who led an earlier financing round, said that while Synchron’s device may seem like something out of science fiction, it’s grounded in “real science” and is already making a significant difference in patients’ lives.
“Synchron is actually helping people as of right now, today,” he said in an interview. “That, to me, is really exceptional.”
In January, the medical journal Nature published a study on the successful use of Synchron’s technology on a patient with paralysis, marking a significant milestone for the company. The patient was able to control a computer cursor and a robotic arm using their mind, as well as perform tasks such as using a virtual keyboard and manipulating objects in a virtual reality environment.
The study’s lead author, neurologist and Synchron co-founder Dr. Thomas Oxley, said that the technology has the potential to transform the lives of millions of people with paralysis. “We’re seeing the first proof that we can restore the ability to communicate and move the limbs of people who were completely locked in,” he said.
Synchron’s technology also has potential applications beyond paralysis. The company is exploring the use of its BCI for the treatment of other neurological conditions such as epilepsy and chronic pain. The technology could also be used to monitor brain activity in real time, which could be valuable for diagnosing and treating conditions such as traumatic brain injury.
The potential of BCI technology has captured the imagination of scientists and entrepreneurs for decades, but until recently, progress had been slow. However, with the emergence of companies like Synchron and Neuralink, the field is rapidly advancing. While the technology is still in its early stages, the potential benefits are enormous.
As Synchron continues to develop its technology, it faces challenges such as regulatory approval and scaling up production. However, the company is optimistic about the future. “We’re in the very early days of a very long journey,” Haggstrom said. “But we’re incredibly excited about the potential impact we can have on people’s lives.”