Neurotech monthly. May 2021

Ultrasound, brain-to-text BCI, synthetic data for neuroscience, Peter Thiel invests in neurotech

The second issue of astrocyte* newsletter is here. It covers:

My neurotech reading list

a) Tech Stack: ultrasound for imaging, neuromodulation, and wireless charging, increasing # of channels per amplifier, a brain-to-text BCI;

b) Data Science: a primer on ANNs for neuroscience, synthetic data for discovery neuroscience, ML for predicting optimal DBS, and other themes.

Startup/Corporate news

a) Investments: Peter Thiel invests in BlackRock; MindPortal and Cumulus also raised their rounds;

b) Other news: early feasibility studies for an implantable visual prosthesis system.

My interpretations/comments are in italic.

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I. Reading List

Tech Stack

New neuroelectronic system can read and modify brain circuits - some engineering magic - ‘… the researchers orchestrated their devices to create high performance implantable circuits that enable allow reading and manipulation of brain circuits. Their multiplex-then-amplify (MTA) system requires only one amplifier per multiplexer, in contrast to current approaches that need an equal number of amplifiers as number of channels’.

The cornerstone of the modern tech is personalisation and miniaturisation, building closed-loop miniature systems that enable researchers to design personalised therapies is paramount for a wider neurotech adoption.

Functional ultrasound neuroimaging: a review of the preclinical and clinical state of the art - old but gold - ‘… As a neuroimaging modality, functional ultrasound offers a unique combination of spatiotemporal resolution, sensitivity, portability, and features that domains of bridge optical and fMRI techniques’.

I’ve mentioned in the previous newsletter Butterfly iQ, an example of ultrasound miniaturisation, and I continue to believe that portable and noninvasive/less-invasive devices are required for a wide/consumer neurotech adoption.

Another take on ultrasound - A revolution for neural implants: wireless charging and nerve stimulation - ‘… One of our main goals is to power implants via ultrasound…. We want to transfer power wirelessly to very small implants that are placed deeper inside the body, which is why we are looking at ultrasound transducers integrated into these micro-implants themselves. These transducers act as receivers that can absorb the energy contained in the acoustic waves transmitted from the outside.

… we are also exploring ways to stimulate tissue. … There are billions of neural cells inside the human body and, ideally, we would like to have a means to interact with each of them. Ultrasound could potentially give us this capability, because by combining different acoustic waves, we can create very small focal points to target specific locations inside the body’.

Wireless charging is an important feature that helps to take BCIs outside the lab.

A chance to combine different acoustic waves to target specific locations inside the body is an important direction for personalisation, and therefore consumerization.

High-performance brain-to-text communication via handwriting - ‘…Here we developed an intracortical BCI that decodes attempted handwriting movements from neural activity in the motor cortex and translates it to text in real time, using a recurrent neural network decoding approach. With this BCI, our study participant, whose hand was paralysed from spinal cord injury, achieved typing speeds of 90 characters per minute with 94.1% raw accuracy online, and greater than 99% accuracy offline with a general-purpose autocorrect’.

Facebook has experimented with hands-free typing, and given how big is writing for social media and the consumer internet in general, brain-to-text seems to me one of the most exciting applications of BCIs.

Data Science

Artificial neural networks for neuroscientists: A primer - the article covers fundamental elements of artificial neural networks (ANNs), namely learning problems, architectures, and algorithms. Then it outlines ways to customise ANNs for brain research, e.g. by plugging canonical computations into ANNs.

I absolutely agree that ‘opening the black box’ of ANNs should be prioritised. There are startups that work on ML models’ performance monitoring and observability (see examples), and I’d expect in the future we may see startups building industry-specific monitoring/observability solutions for neuroscience.

NeuroGen: activation optimized image synthesis for discovery neuroscience - ‘we propose a state- of-the-art generative framework, called NeuroGen, which allows synthesis of images that are optimized to achieve specific, predetermined brain activation responses in the human brain. We then apply this framework as a discovery architecture to amplify differences in regional and individual brain response patterns to visual stimuli’.

Synthetic data is a big thing in software development/data science, dozens of startups build tech to create and manage synthetic datasets (here’s the list). I’d expect a dedicated startup will build it for neuroscience and give it a boost.

Predicting optimal deep brain stimulation parameters for Parkinson’s disease using functional MRI and machine learning - ‘…we propose that fMRI brain responses to DBS stimulation in Parkinson’s diseas patients could represent an objective biomarker of clinical response. … we trained and validated a ML model to classify whether a given stimulation setting could be considered clinically optimal in terms of DBS contact and voltage’.

That’s another important step towards personalisation, and a great way to apply ML.

Other Themes

Hand-selective visual regions represent how to grasp 3D tools: brain decoding during real actions - ‘… our results show that typicality representations for tool grasping are automatically evoked in visual regions specialised for representing the human hand, the brain’s primary tool for interacting with the world'.

If people interpret a tool as a part of their hand, maybe we are closer to technologies than we might think. A great thread on it:

A list of entrepreneurs who set an example of a proper narrative on neuroscience, neurotech, its current state and expectations:

Kip Ludwig @KipLudwig@neuraldust @Twitter Great Question.  Non-Exhaustive list: Florian Solzbacher (Blackrock) Eric Leuthardt (Neurolutions) Dan Rizzuto (Nia Therapeutics) Tim Denison (formerly of Medtronic) Bob Greenberg (Second Sight/Al Mann) Danny McDonnall (Ripple) Matt Angle (Paradromics) Dave Rosa (NeuroOne)6:59 PM ∙ May 30, 2021

II. Startup/Corporate News (May 2021)


  • MindPortal rasied $5M for it’s BCI (🇺🇸/🇬🇧). I’ve written about their quick crowdfunding campaign in the previous newsletter. I’d guess this crowdfunding was more a marketing campaign, that might help them to get attention of more than 120 angel investors and funds. It’s good time to build a neurotech startup.
  • Cumulus Neuroscience raised £6M (🇬🇧). Previously known as BrainWave, it provides clinical trial data and AI-powered insights, to accelerate the development of life-changing CNS therapies. An important part of the product is a home usable EEG headset that probes neuronal integrity, network connectivity and the strategies the brain uses to compensate for neuronal damage.
  • Russian neurotech startup raises $7.4 million (🇷🇺) - Neiry offers a headset, integrated algorithms, and an SDK to connect its product with other technologies like sensors for electrodermal activity, eye tracking, and speech recognition;
  • Blackrock Neurotech has closed a $10 million financing round (🇺🇸), led by Christian Angermayer's re.Mind Capital with participation from Peter Thiel and others. The company has been selling hardware and software to the neuroscience research community for over a decade, and is profitable.

Trials & Other Announcements

A six-subject early feasibility study of the Orion, an implantable visual prosthesis system, no peer-reviewed data is available - ‘… Orion is intended to convert images captured by a miniature video camera mounted on glasses into a series of small electrical pulses. The device is designed to bypass diseased or injured eye anatomy and to transmit these electrical pulses wirelessly to an array of electrodes implanted on the surface of the brain’s visual cortex’.

I’m blown away by the fact that there is a publicly listed company that experiments with such devices, moreover it has already implanted the previous generation of the device to 350+ individuals worldwide. Future is here.

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