Array of Precision Neuroscience
Source: Precision Neuroscience
The human cerebral cortex is made up of six layers of cells, but at Precision Neuroscience, a team of scientists and engineers are working to build a device that resembles a seventh.
The device is called Layer 7 Cortical Interface and is a brain implant designed to help paralyzed patients operate digital devices using only neural signals. This means patients with severe degenerative diseases like ALS are regaining their ability to communicate with 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 scotch tape and is thinner than a human hair, allowing it to conform to the brain surface without damaging tissue.
Founded in 2021, Precision is one of many companies in the burgeoning brain-computer interface or BCI industry. A BCI is a system that decodes brain signals and translates them into commands for external technologies, and several companies have successfully developed devices with this capability.
Precision was co-founded by Benjamin Rapoport, who also co-founded Elon Musk’s BCI company Neuralink and Michael Mager. But while Neuralink’s BCI is designed to be implanted directly into brain tissue, Precision uses a surgical technique that is less invasive.
Precision Neuroscience’s Stephanie Rider inspects the company’s microelectrode array
Source: Precision Neuroscience
To implant the Layer 7 array, a surgeon makes a very thin slit in the skull and slides the device into a mailbox like a letter. Mager, who is also CEO of Precision, said the slit is less than a millimeter thick — so small that patients don’t even have to have their hair shaved for the procedure.
“I think that’s a huge benefit compared to technologies that require, say, a craniotomy, which removes a significant portion of the skull, which takes a lot of time and has a high risk of infection,” he told CNBC. “I’ve never met anyone who wanted to drill a hole in their skull.”
The nature of the procedure allows Precision to slightly increase the number of electrodes on 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 expanding this to larger patient populations, the risk/reward balance of any procedure is a fundamental consideration for anyone considering medical technology,” Mager said. “If your system is either irreversible or potentially damaged upon explant, that just means the greater the commitment you make to get the implant.”
Jacob Robinson, associate professor of electrical engineering at Rice University and founder of BCI company Motif Neurotech, said Precision is making exciting advances in minimally invasive BCI. Not only patients have to weigh the risks and benefits of an intervention, but also doctors and insurance companies.
Robinson said doctors need to weigh procedures quantitatively and based on existing literature, while insurance companies need to weigh the cost to their patients, so the less invasive surgery makes it easier for all three parties.
“It’s a lower risk, but it also means there’s an opportunity to treat more people, there’s greater acceptance,” he said.
But because the device isn’t inserted directly into brain tissue, Robinson says the resolution of brain signals won’t be as strong as some other BCI devices.
“You get much better resolution than outside the skull, not quite as high resolution as inside the tissue,” he said. “But there’s a lot you can do with this kind of mid-scale.”
Precision has successfully used its Layer 7 device to decode neural signals in animals, and Mager said he 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 the total to $53 million in less than two years. The funding will allow Precision to refine its product, hire more employees and expedite regulatory review by the FDA, a goal Mager says Precision is rapidly working toward.
“We don’t want the next 15 years to be like the last 15 years where this is helping a few dozen people. So I think we’re 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 has been a lot of positive momentum in the BCI space in terms of funding.
Although he said he understands the skepticism that exists around BCIs and technology as a whole, Mager said he believes there is real potential to make a difference for millions of people suffering from neurological disorders.
“I think in many ways the brain is the next frontier for modern medicine,” he said. “The fact that there are so many people who have neurological impairments of one kind or another and that we can offer them such crude tools is going to change. It changes.”