Fancy headsets to manage ADHD. Bluetooth stickers to predict seizures. Mind controlled games to gauge dementia. And of course, implanted chips to relieve pain, restore movement, and eventually, do a whole lot more.
Welcome to the neurotechnology frontier, where brain activity is the coin of the realm. “Neurotech” is an umbrella category for hardware and software tools—think sensors and wearables, invasive and non, combined with powerful AI modeled on large datasets—that are accelerating our ability to understand and influence brain activity.
Acronyms abound: Various forms of sound, light, magnetics and electricity are helping scientists, clinicians and consumers understand brain health from the inside out (and increasingly, vice versa).
The casual reader would be forgiven for thinking it all felt a bit academic, clinical, technical and complicated, because it is. But neurotech’s moment has arrived: This space is moving fast, with growing interest driven by private and public funding, regulatory reforms and media coverage. So it’s a good time to understand the basics of how neurotech is helping people.
Here are 10 places to start.
The CDC estimates that someone has a stroke every 40 seconds. Neurotechnology plays a growing role in both diagnosis and treatment. Fast, accurate imaging tools are enabling clinicians to get a clear picture of what’s happened in a person’s brain, enabling prompt treatment. For recovery, neurotech’s ability to send thoughts into hardware is revolutionizing rehab. One company’s FDA-cleared wearable gloves are helping people retrain neuromuscular function for upper limb control. Other startups are creating personalized, wearable-driven platforms to help people tune up their ability to walk by syncing steps to music.
Neurotech is opening avenues into understanding of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. On the research front, neurotech companies are working on pinpointing biomarkers of cognitive decline by capturing and analyzing multimodal datasets, spanning neurofeedback wearables with camera, microphone, biosensors, and digital cognitive assessments. Other companies are treating symptoms with non-invasive, non-chemical tools, such as targeted light and sound waves delivered through wearable headsets.
As a disease without a known cure, managing symptoms and understanding progression of MS is a vital aspect of the care journey for patients and caregivers alike. Neurotech startups are syncing up brain activity, motor function, cognitive performance and other inputs with AI for greater precision in tracking symptoms and overall health than periodic paper surveys that yield subjective and variable data. As in stroke rehab, some platforms have published research demonstrating improvements in fine motor control, gait, and speech.
Parkinson’s was one of the first approved uses of implanted electrodes in a procedure known as deep brain stimulation. A quarter century later, more advanced implants are coming to market, along with new, noninvasive techniques. Imagine you’re laying inside an MRI awaiting a brain scan. Now imagine you’ve got on a helmet inside the chamber containing a precision ultrasound device, controlled remotely by the doctor standing a few feet away using the MRI for real-time visibility, that zaps plaques in your brain.
Wearable AR headsets are creating new avenues for communication. Much of the hype about invasive “brain computer interfaces” comes from a certain billionaire’s overfunded company. But the broader class of implanted microprocessor companies represents a nexus of science, technology and medicine. These tend to focus on helping people gain or regain motor function, communication and more. While today’s population for this highly regulated technology remains small, limited to trials of the devices and implanting surgical procedures, “neuroethicists” are actively grappling with a near-future when human-computer symbiosis is available more broadly.
The EEG, a staple in diagnosis and monitoring of seizures, turns 100 next year, and disruption has arrived in the multi-billion-dollar epilepsy care market. Portable monitoring kits, disposable bluetooth adhesives, video-synced diagnostics and AI-enabled big data prediction tools are introducing more consumer friendly, remote-enabled care systems. These next-gen sensors are more convenient for patients, and offer a glimpse of innovation in form and function.
Traumatic Brain Injuries
From eye-tracking visors that identify signs of concussion to novel wearables incorporating next-generation diagnostics for brain bleeds to clinical decision-support AI powered by tens of thousands of brain scans, there’s never been a better time to bump your head. Kidding. Beyond greater precision in diagnosis, emerging research is also pointing to the benefits of implantable electrodes for people recovering from moderate to severe injuries.
Opioid Use Disorder
America’s scourge has generated a proliferation of novel investments to understand and treat addiction, pain, PTSD and other drivers of opioid use disorder. Various neurotech startups funded by public grants from programs like HEAL and SBIR, are building self-management tools, researching brain function and experimenting with treatment of specific symptoms. One example from a stealth mode company is a transcranial ultrasound device using MRI-based brain maps and electroencephalography (EEG) tracking to understand how better sleep can aid the recovery process.
Multimodal sensors (brain function, heart rate, eye tracking, other biometrics) are consolidating into mobile platforms that move with athletes or soldiers, from training labs to the field. Professional athletes and collegiate teams are using such tools to boost hand-eye coordination, cut reaction time and tune physiological aspects of performance under duress. The U.S. military has been one of the earliest and largest funders of applied neurotech research through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and other programs. Myriad applications span security, “lethality,” field diagnostics and interventions, health research, advanced craft piloting and, let’s be real here, plenty of top-secret stuff we’ll never know about.
A global landscape of startups sell meditation headbands, earbuds, headphones and other wearable headsets that use EEG sensors in varying configurations to create neurofeedback loops for “brain training.” Startups in this billion dollar market are integrating with sleep tracking, music apps, meditation tools and more. Beyond targeting the worried well, some startups are researching biomarkers for ADHD, while others are forging partnerships in gaming, manufacturing, corporate research and other business areas. And virtually every Big Tech company has some entanglement or vested interest in consumer-grade neurotech.
A caveat in closing this inaugural column: Like the brain itself, any overly simplistic dissection of this industry leaves much to be explored. The list of applications, barriers, opportunities and specific technologies not mentioned here runs long and deep. I’m eager for your perspectives, pushback, insights and questions.
In the coming months, we’ll dive deeper into specifics, exploring market segments, regulatory trends and company strategies, with an overarching focus on the “so what,” which is the commercialization of neurotechnologies to help people in need.
Why commercialization? As these sophisticated tools leave the STEM labs and enter everyday markets, it will be critical for consumers and patients, family members, advocates, ethicists, clinical leaders, business partners and investors to navigate the hype and make sense of what’s real, what’s not, and what’s coming.