Blackrock Neurotech and University of Pittsburgh to Expand Reach of Brain-Computer Interface Trials with In-Home System
A compact, remote BCI system will enable expansion of in-home study sessions, extending the geographic reach and number of individuals that can participate in BCI research.
SALT LAKE CITY, June 21, 2022 /PRNewswire/ — Brain-computer interface (BCI) trials may soon be more accessible to a greater population of candidates living with paralysis, per a new partnership agreement between Blackrock Neurotech, a leader in implantable brain technology, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Rehab Neural Engineering Labs (Pitt RNEL). The agreement sets the stage for Pitt RNEL to scale future brain-computer interface (BCI) studies, enabling more people with remote BCI systems to participate in study sessions from their homes. Pitt RNEL is also creating a process to expand and improve participant recruitment, both remote and on-site, ultimately enabling larger studies with greater numbers of volunteers.
Since 2004, implantable BCIs have offered people with spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders the potential to restore abilities. These BCI systems, comprised of miniaturized electronics, hardware, and machine learning software, decode and translate brain signals into digital commands, providing people with paralysis the ability to control external devices such as computer cursors or robotic arms.
Pitt was among the first research centers to implant Blackrock’s BCI in human participants and has since conducted pioneering trials on a range of BCI applications, including complex control of robotic limbs and restoring sensory feedback using electrical stimulation of the brain. However, participation in Pitt’s clinical trials has, up to now, largely been limited to people living within driving distance of the institution.
“Typical experiments require participants to come into our lab facilities on a regular basis, which is a successful model that will continue to be essential in pushing BCI science forward for years to come,” said Michael Boninger, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and investigator in the Rehab Neural Engineering Labs at Pitt. “However, home testing has become an important supplement to lab testing whereby we enlist study staff to attend sessions and transport parts of the lab equipment to the participant’s home to conduct testing. With this new initiative, we will develop a miniaturized and streamlined BCI system designed to work in people’s homes, while replicating the potential for complex lab-based experiments.”
Under this newly funded collaboration, BCI sessions using this new system will occur at the homes of people participating in the study, demonstrating that BCI research can extend outside of the greater Pittsburgh area. By reducing the challenge of study-related travel, researchers can test a broader population of participants and collect more diverse safety and efficacy data. Importantly, these in-home BCI trials are distinct from other at-home trials Pitt has conducted, where portable systems have been used independently by participants for limited testing and recreational purposes.
The Pitt RNEL group has previously shown that a portable BCI system could be successfully used at home to perform a variety of tasks by imagining the movement of a mouse cursor on the system’s integrated monitor, ranging from playing computer games and typing sentences to creating digital art.
“I first started using the portable system on my own in the summer of 2020, when COVID shut down testing at the lab,” said study participant Nathan Copeland
The expanded trials and compact system are an important step in Blackrock’s efforts to make the first BCI platform commercially available to people with paralysis. The technology, which has been chronically implanted in humans since 2004, has until now only been available to patients through research studies – but Blackrock believes it is ready for real-world use.
“At a neuroscience conference a few years ago, three participants in clinical trials of Blackrock devices sat on a panel and expressed a consensus that our technology addressed immediate needs in their lives,” said Marcus Gerhardt, CEO and co-founder of Blackrock. “Through this expansion of our partnership with Pitt, we will be able to connect with and learn from larger patient populations, with the guiding vision of making the technology available to as many patients as possible.”
More information on the remote trials and recruitment efforts at the University of Pittsburgh can be found here.
Blackrock Neurotech is dedicated to the clinical translation of brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Blackrock, founded in 2008, is the world’s leading platform company for BCI technology and the development of implantable solutions that improve human lives. Blackrock’s precision electrode technology is at the core of many worldwide innovations in BCI, enabling dozens of early users (known as “BCI Pioneers”) to SeeAgain, HearAgain, MoveAgain and more. For more information, visit https://blackrockneurotech.com/
The University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences include the schools of Medicine, Nursing, Dental Medicine, Pharmacy, Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, and Public Health. The schools serve as the academic partner to UPMC. Together, their combined mission is to train tomorrow’s health care specialists and biomedical scientists, engage in groundbreaking research that will advance understanding of the causes and treatments of disease, and participate in the delivery of outstanding patient care. Pitt has ranked among the top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health since 1998. For additional information about Pitt Health Sciences, please visit https://www.health.pitt.edu/.
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