Thought-to-Text Brain-Computer Interface: Interview with Florian Solzbacher, Chairman of Blackrock Neurotech

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Blackrock Neurotech, a medical technology company based in Salt Lake City, created a suite of brain-computer interface systems with the goal of empowering patients to have increased independence and quality of life. This latest technology aims to restore written communication in patients who have difficulties in this regard, such as those affected by paralysis.

The company’s new system, which Blackrock aims to make available in late 2022, allows patients to type text by merely imagining themselves writing or typing the words. The system uses machine learning to decode neural signals that occur while someone is imagining writing, and to date can achieve speeds of up to 90 characters a minute.     

In terms of accuracy, their system boasts 94% thought-to-text accuracy and this increases to 99% when the text is autocorrected by the computer system. The technology could be a new lease on life for such patients. While many brain-computer interfaces have focused on physical actions, such as moving a wheelchair, thought-to-text systems may have been overlooked. Written communication is very important in our increasingly connected digital world, and technologies that improve access to this are surely welcome.

Medgadget had the opportunity to speak with Florian Solzbacher, Co-founder and Chairman of Blackrock Neurotech, about the new system, along with the other technologies that the company has developed.

Conn Hastings, Medgadget: Please give us a brief overview of brain-computer interfaces and the state-of-the-art at present.

Florian Solzbacher, Blackrock Neurotech: Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are medical devices that convert brain activity (i.e., thoughts) into signals that connect to a separate device to enable functions such as moving a cursor on a computer screen or controlling a wheelchair or to regain lost senses like hearing, touch and vision. They are used to help patients with a wide range of neurological disorders including loss of motor or sensory function (i.e., helping people to move, feel, hear or see again). The underlying technology can also potentially be used in monitoring and treatment of diseases such as epilepsy, stroke, depression, PTSD and others that affect large patient populations in the US and worldwide.

When we started Blackrock Neurotech, there was no market for BCIs. But there was (and continues to be) an active research community that studies the nervous system, neurological disorders and how to diagnose and treat them. We realized that by developing and providing electrodes, electronics, surgical tools, and software that could be used from tissue slices through animal models to work in human clinical studies, we could significantly enable progress and help accelerate the field.

We’ve now been in human subjects for 14 years, and there have been tremendous developments – from materials to miniaturization. Of implantable BCIs, Blackrock’s NeuroPort Array (Utah Array) has been around the longest and in the largest number of subjects. As of today, 34 people around the world have an implanted BCI – 31 of those individuals use Blackrock technology. And Blackrock’s technology remains the only one that has demonstrated years of valuable function in human subjects. 

Our mission has always been to build innovative technologies that diagnose and treat neurological disorders – enabling people to walk, talk, see, hear and feel again. Through our planned commercialization efforts starting in 2022, we hope to achieve that. 

Medgadget: Please tell us about the various BCI technologies developed by Blackrock to date.

Florian Solzbacher:

  • Restoring Movement Through Thought – Blackrock’s MoveAgain platform was just granted Breakthrough Device designation from the FDA and offers immobile patients the ability to control a mouse cursor, keyboard, mobile device/tablet, wheelchair or prosthetic device simply by thinking. This BCI system offers these patients new possibilities for improved mobility and independence – such as returning to work, participating in leisure activities, and communicating more effectively and quickly. The goal of the device is to achieve long-term improvement in movement and independence, reduce patient reliance on caregivers and help them better engage with society and the world.
  • Restoring a Sense of Touch – In partnership with the University of Pittsburgh, a groundbreaking research study demonstrated that Blackrock’s implantable system could improve robotic arm control in people with spinal cord injuries by generating a sense of “touch.” The bi-directional prosthetic arm sends sensory signals to the patient’s implanted device, and the resulting tactile sensations allow them to perform more fluid motions. The study was featured in Science Magazine as a breakthrough BCI technological advancement, which will greatly impact those who live with spinal cord injuries.

“This technology could eventually assist people with amputations or paralysis who have not been able to move freely,” said participant Nathan Copeland. “The research we have conducted shows that by implanting the NeuroPort Arrays in parts of the brain that normally control movement and receive sensory signals from the arm, we can produce more natural and fluid motions.”

  • Restoring Hearing for the Deaf – For roughly 30 million Americans suffering from hearing loss, cochlear implants are not a treatment option due to the anatomical variations in their cochlea. In September, Blackrock made an investment into the development of a novel auditory nerve implant (ANI) device to restore hearing in this population of underserved patients. The funding will accelerate pre-clinical trial testing and clinical efforts through a partnership with University of Minnesota. Not only could this implant allow for significant hearing improvements in a whole new set of patients, but it could improve activation of the auditory pathway to the brain, which in turn could further help people with hearing loss hear in noisy environments such as live music. The goal is to ultimately implant 40-50 deaf patients within the next three years.
  • Restoring Communication – In this groundbreaking study and “once unimagined accomplishment” led by Blackrock partner University of California San Francisco, researchers have used Blackrock hardware to decode subtle patterns in the speech areas of a paralyzed man’s brain. Now, the patient can communicate again — just by thinking the words. The implanted electrodes translate his brain activity into words, which are then sent and displayed on a computer. This approach is part of a surge of innovation aimed at helping tens of thousands of people who lack the ability to talk, but whose brains contain the neural pathways for speech. The machine learning decoder software was licensed from Stanford University.
  • Resetting Internal Clocks – In May, Blackrock announced its partnership with Northwestern University to develop a wireless, fully implantable device that will half the time it takes for people to recover from disrupted sleep/wake cycles. The project – a collaborative effort between Blackrock, Northwestern, Rice University, and Carnegie Mellon University – is part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s new initiative to address the challenges of travel, including jet lag, fatigue, gastrointestinal issues and weakened immune response. Developed primarily for military personnel and first responders, the team plans to translate this technology for the many people who suffer negative effects from traveling long distances or working long and irregular hours.

Medgadget: Many BCI devices focus on physical applications, such as moving a wheelchair. Why did you choose to develop a system that is focused on text?

Florian Solzbacher: Most of our BCI patients to date use the implant for physical applications like controlling a wheelchair or robotic arm. But we don’t believe the use cases need to end there. The immediate goals of this initiative are to demonstrate that patients experience increased independence, improved quality of life, and the ability to return to the workforce with their use of the platform. However, this technology could also help enable patients to control other external devices, such as a screen cursor, chair, vehicle, robotic arm or manipulator.

With the aim of commercialization in 2022, we hope to get this into the hands of many more patients. That’s incredibly important to us.

Blackrock’s NeuroPort Array, the FDA Cleared configuration of the Utah Array implanted in humans.

Medgadget: Please give us an overview of the new thought-to-text platform that has been developed by Blackrock. How does it work, and what is it like to use?

The Neuroport Connector pedestal is used in human patients and connects the implanted array to an external device/computer.

Florian Solzbacher: This BCI platform consists of an implant, miniaturized electronics, software, and a decoder. As a patient is thinking, electrodes implanted in the brain read the electrical firing patterns of neurons and send those signals through a bundle of five patented machine learning software decoders. With this breakthrough technology, patients with limited communication abilities are able to create text by thinking or imagining themselves typing or writing by hand. So, using the device becomes second nature – since it’s really just responding to natural thought.

Medgadget: How have the results with the new system been?

Florian Solzbacher: Thanks to algorithms licensed by Stanford University, the early studies with this platform have demonstrated typing speeds up to ten times faster than other BCI communication decoding options. The studies show typing of up to 90 characters per minute with 94% thought-to-text live accuracy. That accuracy improves to 99% with post-processing auto-correction work.

The eventual goal is to enable communication functions on par with that of an able-bodied person. The progress is truly incredible.

Medgadget: Where do you see BCI devices going in the future? Do you think minimally invasive, implant-free systems are a possibility? Will the technology see increased adoption?

Florian Solzbacher: We are seeing the beginning of a revolution in the use of BCIs for the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders and disabilities. Down the line, there are a number of applications that may see benefits using our technology platform, including the restoration of treating or mitigating pain, hearing loss, depression, seizures, memory loss, possibly depression and many others. Miniaturization, machine learning, and wireless capabilities will continue to improve functional capabilities and performance. Surgery will also likely become (depending on use case) less invasive, faster, and more automated and we will see more clinical centers offer these solutions.

Blackrock MicroFlex Arrays, currently in animal studies, are made out of flexible polyimide material and can be placed deep into the brain (invasive), or on the surface of the brain (less invasive.)

Our biggest hope is to see more people regain function and to better integrate, contribute to and participate in society. When independence is restored and people can return to the workforce, I believe we will see more patients, clinicians and insurance providers make this a first choice, rather than a last resort.

In 20-30 years, I do foresee that these types of implants may be just as common as cardiac pacemakers are today. I anticipate that we will also see an acceleration of knowledge and insight, and a larger ecosystem in general — which will create more options and opportunities for users of the technology.

Link: Blackrock Neurotech…