Geneva-based Wyss Center develops the AppStore of brain-machine interfaces

The Wyss Center has licensed its NeuroKey neural signal processing platform worldwide to Blackrock Microsystems / Wyss Center

The Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering has signed a deal to make its software platform for detecting and decoding brain signals more readily available. 

The not-for-profit research foundation, based at the Campus Biotech in Geneva, has granted a worldwide license to America’s Blackrock Microsystems to commercialize its NeuroKey platform for research and clinical applications.

Designed to work with several devices, the Wyss Center developed NeuroKey because there was no interoperable system capable of processing the neural signals of the various implants developed by industry and research.

Why we are talking about it. Billionaire Elon Musk put the spotlight on Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs) last Friday, after his start-up, Neuralink, demonstrated a chip that would be able to connect digital information to the brain. But the main use of these technologies remains medical. In this field, commercial devices require software developments to extend their use to clinical applications (restoring movement, senses...). The NeuroKey platform is designed to facilitate the use of these devices by patients, including in unattended environments such as their homes.

What we are talking about. For more than a century, electroencephalograms (EEGs) have been collecting tiny electrical signals from the scalp surface using sensors. Separated from the brain by the skin, skull and meninges, these devices, however, only pick up signals that are not very specific, with a lot of background noise.

  • Since the end of the 1980s, brain implants have made it possible to place electrodes in the brain and to detect nerve impulses with increasing precision, reaching the neuron level for the latest generations.

  • This ability to detect and process nerve signals makes it possible to use implants to interpret certain intentions and to compensate for communication deficits in paralyzed patients, for example, due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

  • On the other hand, active implants can be used to stimulate appropriate areas of the brain to restore or inhibit functions. To treat motor, cognitive and psychiatric disorders, for example. These implants are also used for restoring movement, controlling assistive devices, etc.

NeuroKey. Brain implants are developed by research groups and manufacturers on the basis of in-house software. It is therefore very difficult to make them work together. Brain-machine interface specialist at the Wyss Center and head of the NeuroKey project, David Ibanez explains:

“One limitation of neural signal processing applications is that there is no single software platform that directly works with the multiple devices collecting brain signals. Researchers and clinicians have to develop their own software to analyze the signals from a patient, which limits effectiveness and slows down the implementation of solutions to the clinic.”

Neurotechnologies are indeed in a pioneering phase, so there are no standards and open source is not common. President of BioAlps, the association of life science companies in French-speaking Switzerland and author of the book "Brain-Computer Interface Technologies, Accelerating Neuro-Technology for Human Benefit", Claude Clément explains:

"Many academic developments are made with a will to protect intellectual property, so that we often redo what has already been done and no longer count the projects that have not been successful".

Closer to an AppStore-type platform, according to David Ibanez, than an operating system like Windows, NeuroKey should allow the development of new brain-machine interface applications by implant manufacturers and academic research groups.

The avalanche of data. The amount of information generated by implants is another challenge. David Ibanez gives the number of implants with 120 channels, each detecting 30,000 signals per second.

The NeuroKey project is the software component of a program at the Wyss center, which is also developing an implant (Ability). Like others, this implant aims to sort on the chip itself some of the information collected. The implant and the treatment platform are thus intended to be complementary. According to Claude Clément:

"There are physical limits to the amount of information you can extract from the brain. You have so much data that you don't have enough frequency band to collect it. So the latest implants are starting to sort out the information in the chip itself, for example to eliminate background noise.”

David Ibanez explains:

"NeuroKey can process any kind of signal at both high and low frequencies."

In addition, the development of implants is also becoming multimodal. It is no longer a question of picking up signals from the brain, but of relating them to other sources of physiological information, such as heartbeats recorded by an electrocardiogram or movements recorded by an accelerometer. According to Claude Clément:

"The only information coming from the brain is not enough. We need several sources to distinguish, for example, the warning signs of a syncope from those of an epileptic seizure".

Research published Thursday, August 27 by the Wyss Center describes six of these systems developed for monitoring epilepsy.

NeuroKey was designed to be able to process this neurological and physiological information.

Portable. Currently, ICM devices can only be used under extreme surveillance and in controlled environments. What a platform like NeuroKey also designs is the possibility of miniaturizing the external servers that process this information in real-time.

Today, these are large racks of servers that consume so much energy that they must remain connected to the power grid. This limits patient autonomy. In the long term, these devices will be miniaturized in a wheelchair or backpack and in the longer term in "wearables" such as connected watches.

The collaboration. Blackrock is the leader in processing systems for data extracted by brain implants with Ripple. Its collaboration with the Wyss Center, created in 2014 thanks to a donation from the Swiss entrepreneur and philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, will enable it to renew its market.

At present, there are only a few thousand research centers in the world that use these systems and all of them are equipped. NeuroKey should enable the company to renew this market by gradually adding the clinical research market and eventually the patient market at home.