Market Ripe for Nonmedical Neurotech Applications
by Victor Pikov, contributing editor
Numerous neuroprosthetic devices are currently being developed by startup companies throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Most of these startups are pursuing a well-established strategy of building a device to treat a specific neurological disorder. Getting a device to market through this strategy involves a lengthy process toward FDA approval and hospital/doctor-mediated reimbursement by Medicare.
Using this strategy, the resulting device is usually fully implanted and contains only the circuitry needed for its primary function to treat a specific disorder. The device is designed for autonomous operation without user accessibility, and any device’s software tuning/upgrade requires a physician and specialized clinical equipment. These features are aimed at ensuring proper device operation over a long period of time and to limit the manufacturer’s and surgeon’s liability.
This situation has created the possibility of developing consumer-oriented neural interfaces. Such a strategy is inspired by recent developments in the consumer electronics industry and, particularly, a wide adoption of body-worn electronics. This new strategy requires a fundamental shift in the user-device relationship. Instead of treating a neural prosthesis as a “band-aid” for restoring the lost or damaged neurological function, users would experience the device as their own neural interface, as an extension of their existing sensory/motor systems. The table above illustrates the key attributes that differentiate a conventional neurological device from a consumer-oriented device.
The fundamental changes in product strategy relate to every aspect from device marketing to its configuration, operation, and user control. The reduced complexity and size of implanted components are crucial for allowing a minimally invasive implantation that can be performed by a neurologist (rather than a neurosurgeon) in an outpatient clinic. Fabrication of a simple implantable device combined with a simple surgery can dramatically reduce the overall user cost (perhaps to a sub-$10,000 level) and therefore make the devices applicable for non-medical applications, such as memory improvement and cognitive training.
Continuing the parallel with consumer electronics, let’s think for a moment about our computer use just 10 years ago. Computers back then could serve specific functions, such as data entry, word processing, accounting, etc. Our everyday lives, however, have been rather “untethered”—as we live our lives oblivious to a possibility of having constant access to our email inbox or a Facebook status. There is no denying that we are evolving into a new social species—the “homo twitterus”—with a reported 60 percent of smartphone users waking up voluntarily during the night to check their messages.
Let’s compare that with our evolving attitude toward neural interfaces. In the classic SciFi movie The Matrix, a portrayal of unsightly skin plugs on Neo’s back was positively repulsive. A decade later, in the movie Tron: Legacy, the identity discs worn by the Grid inhabitants, prominently featured on their back, appear rather attractive and stylish. Our interest in and even possible obsession with the “neural interface lifestyle” may start initially among technology aficionados and then spread to the general population.
The consumer electronics industry has recently experienced a dramatic turn from touting enhanced functionality and lower cost toward offering elitist devices with a devoted customer base—such as the iPad and iPhone. Apple is enjoying robust growth by strengthening its deep personal relationship with customers and by changing their lifestyle in a profound way. Consumer applications of neural interfaces can bring such device-user relationship to a whole new level, with the person’s everyday life being dependent on bidirectional exchange with their body-worn personal assistant.
The rich virtual environment provided by a neural interface can be used, for example, by retired baby-boomers who have embraced the digital revolution and active cognitive lifestyle in an effort to delay mental aging and Alzheimer’s decay. Many other applications, perhaps even more pervasive and lifestyle-changing, could emerge as neural interface technology takes hold in society.
||Replacement of lost/damaged neural functions
||Activation of existing neural functions for enhanced use and preventing decay
||Electrodes, pulse generator, and battery
||Electrodes only (minimally-invasive placement)
|Body-worn components (BWCs)
||Transmitter/receiver for battery re-charging (and for data I/O)
||User-controlled multi-purpose CPU and battery
|Placement of BWCs
||Inconspicuous or hidden from view
|Accessibility of BWCs
||Usually only by a physician
||Easily accessible by a user
|Communication w/other devices
||None (standalone use)
||Standard wireless protocols (Bluetooth, WiFi, 3G)