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Tertiary care / Quality improvement

Deal to create brain-implantable chip solution for neurodegenerative illnesses

By Andrew Sansom 08 Jun 2017 0

An engineering research centre and a semiconductor IP company have signed an agreement aimed at solving a raft of debilitating neurodegenerative diseases through the development of brain-implantable chips.

The partnership between ARM and the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) will see the latter develop a ‘brain-implantable’ system-on-a-chip (SoC) for bi-directional brain-computer interfaces (BBCI) aimed at addressing neurodegenerative disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even paralysis. As it matures, this technology, when combined with the human brain, could be used to solve myriad challenges in healthcare and beyond.

Based at the University of Washington, the CSNE is a National Science Foundation engineering research centre working to develop ways to connect a deep computational understanding of how the brain adapts and processes information with the design of implantable devices. The long-term goal is to assist people affected by neurological conditions by engineering neurotechnology that will help the body heal, feel and move again.

The SoC will play a vital role in decoding the complex signals formed within the brain, digitising them so they can be processed and acted upon, and allowing it to control the body’s muscle functions – which is the key to tackling neurodegenerative disease.

The chip is being designed to address stroke, spinal cord injury, and other neurological conditions. People who have experienced a stroke or spinal cord injury often have health issues, such as paralysis, which can impact their quality of life by preventing them from moving parts of their body.

The research project will design a SoC capable of taking neural signals from the brain that represent movements that a person with paralysis wishes to make, and directing those signals to a stimulator implanted in the spinal cord itself. This will enable the person to make the desired movements whenever they want, effectively overcoming their paralysis. In the future, it is envisaged the device will also be able to send information in the reverse direction, allowing the person to once again feel what their hand is touching.

Research is also demonstrating that use of such a system may eventually help to coax brain neurons to rewire in ways that help the brain recover from stroke. 

Brain-implantable chips need to be very small and highly power-efficient. ARM’s Cortex-M0 processor is the company’s smallest available and, by being an integral part of the CSNE’s brain-implantable SoC, will contribute to this important area of research.

Sharing his thoughts on the collaboration, Dr Scott Ransom, the CSNE’s director of industry relations and innovation, said: “We’re very excited to be collaborating with a company like ARM. ARM’s strong expertise in power-efficient microprocessors complements the CSNE’s work in computational neuroscience and brain-computer interfacing, and we expect the partnership to lead to advances in not only medical technology but other applications as well, such as consumer electronics.”