Ars talks to Precision, the brain chip maker taking a less invasive path

Enlarge / Precision Layer 7 Cortical Interface Array.

Work toward brain-computer interfaces has never been more intense. Although neuroscientists have struggled for decades to directly access human thoughts, recent advances have made the field buzz with anticipation, and the involvement of a polarizing billionaire has attracted a new level of attention.

With competition increasing in this space, Ars spoke with Ben Rapoport, a neurosurgeon, electrical engineer, and co-founder of brain-computer interface (BCI) company Precision Neuroscience. Precision is at the forefront of the field, having placed its BCI in the brains of 14 human patients so far, with two more scheduled for this month. Rapoport says he hopes to at least double that number of human participants by the end of this year. In fact, the 3-year-old company hopes to have its first BCI on the market next year.

In addition to rapid progress, Precision stands out for its divergence from the strategies of its competitor, namely Neuralink, the most prominent BCI company led by Elon Musk. In 2016, Rapoport co-founded Neuralink along with Musk and other scientists. But he didn’t stay long and co-founded Precision in 2021. In previous interviews, Rapoport suggested that his separation from Neuralink was related to security issues and the invasiveness of the BCI design. While the Neuralink device delves deeper into the brain (trying to eavesdrop on neural signals with close-range electrodes to decode thoughts and intended movements and speech), the accuracy remains on the surface, where there is little to no risk of damage brain tissue.

superficial signs

“It was previously thought that needle-shaped electrodes needed to be placed on the surface of the brain to hear signals of adequate quality,” Rapoport told Ars. The first BCIs developed decades ago used electrode arrays with tiny needles that sunk up to 1.5 millimeters into brain tissue. Competitors such as Blackrock Neurotech and Paradromics are still developing such designs. (Another competitor, Synchron, is developing a stent-like device inserted into a major blood vessel in the brain.) Meanwhile, Neuralink is going further, using a robot to surgically implant electrodes into brain tissue, reportedly between 3mm and 8mm deep. .

However, Rapoport avoids this approach. Any time something essentially cuts into the brain, damage occurs, he points out. Scar and fibrous tissue can form, which is detrimental to the patient and the functioning of the BCI. “So there is no infinite scalability [to such designs]Rapoport notes, “because when you try to scale that up to make many small penetrations into the brain, at some point you may run into a limitation on the number of times you can penetrate the brain without causing irreversible, undetectable damage.”

Furthermore, he claims, penetrating the brain is simply unnecessary. Rapoport says there is no fundamental data to suggest penetration is necessary for BCI advancements. Rather, the idea was based on the state of knowledge and technology decades ago. “It was just an accident and that’s how the field started,” he said. But since the 1970s, when centimeter-scale electrodes were first used to capture brain activity, technology has advanced from the macroscopic to the microscopic range, creating more powerful devices.

“All conscious thought (movement, sensation, intention, vision, etc.) is coordinated at the level of the neocortex, which is the outermost two millimeters of the brain,” Rapoport said. “So everything, all the signals of interest (the cognitive processing signals that are interesting to the brain-computer interface world) happen within millimeters of the surface of the brain…we’re talking about very small spatial scales.” With today’s most powerful technology, Precision believes it can collect the data it needs without having to physically travel those small distances.

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