If Nia Therapeutics succeeds, brain chips will enter medical clinics in three years that will provide memory generation for all patients suffering from brain injuries or disorders.
Michael Kahana, a University of Pennsylvania researcher, and Dan Rizzuto, a neuroscientist, in 2016 founded Nia Therapeutics, where they are trying to develop the memory-restoring surgically-implanted chip. The team has created the prototype for the device and are now in the process of getting the Food and Drug Administration approval to perform clinical trials.
“There has been an explosion in brain stimulation and interface research, whether it be for paralysis, brain injuries, or depression,” Rizzuto told Karma. “We hope we can bring our therapy to others.”
Over the past five years, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has invested $77 million into the development of devices intended to restore the memory-generation capacity of people with traumatic brain injuries.
Encouraging Memory Generation Research
While Johnson & Johnson is also investing in similar research, Nia Therapeutics says it is the only neural engineering company focusing exclusively on memory generation.
Kahana’s research team and Medtronic, the medical technology company, have published compelling results of tests conducted on 25 patients suffering primarily from epilepsy.
In the tests, a medical device was attached to the left portion of the patients’ brains at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Stimulating the memory portion of the brain using the prosthetic aid, the team was able to help the patients improve on a memory test. As patients watched a list of words, the computer would record brain activity to predict whether the patients had learned each word effectively by triggering a stimulation, according to the research study.
“We worked with these neurosurgical patients whose brain activities were already being recorded. It was a unique opportunity,” Rizzuto said.
Based on the results, the stimuli improved the memory of patients by an average of 15%.
“The exciting thing about this is that, if it can be replicated and extended, then we can use the same method to figure out what features of brain activity predict good performance,” said Bradley Voytek, an assistant professor of cognitive and data science at the University of California, San Diego.
“Medical technology investing is a difficult process because it depends on the merits of the technology and what the potential of it is,” says Patrick Brennan, the associate Vice president at AdvaMed Accel, an association dedicated to helping small medical technologies gain regulatory, economic, and legal support.
Other companies in addition to Medtronic have also taken steps toward brain implants.
Paradromics, founded in 2015, has also been leading the way in recording motor signals for patients who are paralyzed. Providing interfaces with the brain, Paradromics wants to provide these patients the ability to communicate.
Still in preclinical stages, Paradromics may find a way to help treat diseases like the progressive neurodegenerative disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and may restore the person’s ability to communicate through recording data from parts of the brain.
“We are creating an implantable device that exchanges data between a brain and a computer,” said Matt Angle, Paradromics’ Founder and CEO, who completed a $7 million Seed round of financing last year.
Billionaire Elon Musk entered the field in 2016 when he announced Neuralink, a neurotechnology startup that hopes to one day connect humans to computers, enabling humans to reach higher levels of cognition.
Last year Musk promised to launch a new product that “seamlessly combine humans with computers,” nothing materialized publicly. It still unclear what Neuralink’s objective would be for medical or consumer motives.
‘Not A Leader Yet’
While the company has shown potential, Kahana agrees it’s still way early. It is one thing to have the data to prove the stimulation works and “it’s another to have the program run on its own and watch it in real time,” he told the New York Times.
“Nia Therapeutics is working on the brain implants, but they’re still waiting on the funding stages,” says Nicole Kratz, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s not a leader yet.”
And even then investors will need to recognize that regulatory and clinical tests are still required before any device could become accessible to the public.