Synchron, a brain-computer interface (BCI) startup, is developing a technology to enhance the lives of people with paralysis. The company's latest invention, the Synchron Switch, is a device that can be implanted through the blood vessels, allowing those with limited physical mobility to operate technology using only their minds.
The BCI industry is still in its early stages, but it is rapidly gaining attention and support from major investors like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Synchron's CEO, Tom Oxley, said that the technology is designed to help patients "engage in ways that we take for granted." He has also witnessed the impact it has had on patients and their families.
Synchron's technology is not only groundbreaking but also less invasive than other BCIs on the market. While many competitors require open-brain surgery to implant their devices, Synchron uses existing endovascular techniques. The Stentrode, a stent fitted with tiny sensors, is inserted into the large vein that sits next to the motor cortex. The Stentrode is then connected to an antenna under the skin in the chest, which collects raw brain data that is sent to external devices.
Synchron's BCI has been tested on three patients in the US and four in Australia. In August 2020, the company received Breakthrough Device designation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is given to medical devices with the potential to provide improved treatment for debilitating or life-threatening conditions. The following year, Synchron became 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, which aims to demonstrate the safety of the technology in humans. Six patients will be implanted with Synchron's BCI during the study. Synchron's Chief Commercial Officer, Kurt Haggstrom, said the company is about halfway through the trial. Synchron has no revenue yet, and a spokesperson said the company is not commenting on how much the procedure will cost.
For patients with severe paralysis or degenerative diseases like 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 Synchron's BCI to shop online and manage their health and finances. Oxley said what often excites them the most is text messaging. "Losing the ability to text message is incredibly isolating. Restoring the ability to text message loved ones is a very emotional restoration of power," he said.
In December 2021, Synchron made headlines when its patient, Philip O'Keefe, became the first person in the world to tweet using a BCI device. O'Keefe, who has ALS and struggles to move his hands, was implanted with Synchron's BCI 20 months earlier. O'Keefe was given access to Oxley's Twitter account and tweeted, "hello, world! Short tweet. Monumental progress," using the BCI.
Synchron's technology has caught the attention of its competitors, including Elon Musk's Neuralink. Musk reportedly approached Synchron to discuss a potential investment last year, but the company declined to comment about the report. Neuralink is developing a BCI designed to be inserted directly into the brain tissue, which is more invasive than Synchron's approach.