Synchron, a brain interface startup based in Brooklyn, is working on technology that could revolutionize the lives of people with paralysis. The Synchron Switch, which is implanted through the blood vessels, allows those with limited physical mobility to control technology using their thoughts. The nascent technology has been used on three patients in the U.S. and four in Australia.
Synchron is part of the growing brain-computer interface (BCI) industry, which is focused on developing systems that translate brain signals into commands for external technologies. While Elon Musk’s Neuralink is perhaps the most well-known company in this space, other tech billionaires are also investing in this field. In December 2021, Synchron announced a $75 million funding round that included investment from the investment firms of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
Synchron’s BCI technology has received Breakthrough Device designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is reserved for medical devices with the potential to provide improved treatment for debilitating or life-threatening conditions. Synchron was also the first company to receive an Investigational Device Exemption from the FDA to conduct trials of a permanently implantable BCI in human patients.
The company is currently enrolling patients in an early feasibility trial to demonstrate that the technology is safe to use in humans. The trial will involve implanting Synchron’s BCI into six patients, and the company is roughly halfway through the process. Although the company has not yet generated any revenue, its technology has the potential to change the lives of people with severe paralysis or degenerative diseases, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Synchron’s BCI technology is inserted through the blood vessels using endovascular techniques, which are less invasive than the open-brain surgery used by many competitors. The Stentrode, Synchron’s stent, is fitted with sensors and is delivered to the large vein next to the motor cortex. The device is then connected to an antenna that sits under the skin in the chest, which collects brain data and sends it to external devices.
While the device’s quality of brain signal isn’t perfect, it has several advantages over other BCI technologies. For example, the less invasive approach makes it more accessible, and the device doesn’t touch the brain tissue, which can be sensitive to foreign objects. The company has not disclosed how much the procedure will eventually cost.
Synchron’s BCI technology allows patients to operate technology using their thoughts, such as typing, texting, or even accessing social media. The technology enables patients to shop online, manage their health and finances, and most importantly, communicate with their loved ones. The ability to text message is especially important for patients, as it allows them to maintain social connections and reduce feelings of isolation.
The technology has already had a significant impact on the lives of people with paralysis. In December 2021, Synchron CEO Tom Oxley handed over his Twitter account to a patient named Philip O’Keefe, who has ALS and struggles to move his hands. O’Keefe was implanted with Synchron’s BCI technology about 20 months earlier, and he used the device to tweet on Oxley’s page.
Musk’s Neuralink is developing a BCI technology that is designed to be inserted directly into the brain tissue. Although the company is not yet testing its device in humans, Musk hopes to do so later this year.