The human cerebral cortex is made up of six cellular layers, but at Precision Neuroscience, a team of scientists and engineers is working to build a device that’s reminiscent of a seventh.
The device is called the Layer 7 Cortical Interface, and it’s a brain implant that aims to help patients with paralysis operate digital devices using only neural signals. This means patients with severe degenerative diseases like ALS will regain their ability to communicate with loved ones by moving cursors, typing and even accessing social media with their minds.
The Layer 7 is an electrode array that resembles a piece of scotch tape and is thinner than a human hair, which helps it conform to the brain’s surface without damaging any tissue.
Precision, founded in 2021, is one of many companies in the emerging brain-computer interface, or BCI, industry. A BCI is a system that deciphers brain signals and translates them into commands for external technologies, and several companies have successfully created devices with this capability.
Precision was co-founded by Benjamin Rapoport, who also co-founded Elon Musk’s BCI company, Neuralink, and Michael Mager. But while Neuralink’s BCI is designed to be implanted directly into the brain tissue, Precision relies on a surgical technique that is designed to be less invasive.
In order to implant the Layer 7 array, a surgeon makes a very thin slit into the skull and slides in the device like a letter into a letter box. Mager, who is also Precision’s CEO, said the slit is less than a millimeter thick – so small that patients do not even need their hair shaved for the procedure.
“I think that’s a big advantage compared to technologies that require, for example, a craniotomy, removing a significant portion of the skull, which takes a lot of time and has a lot of risk of infection,” he told CNBC. “I’ve never met anyone who wanted a hole drilled into their skull.”
The nature of the procedure allows Precision to easily scale up the number of electrodes on the array, which Mager said will eventually allow the device to be used for neurological applications beyond paralysis.
The procedure is also reversible if patients decide they no longer want the implant or want newer versions in the future.
“As you start thinking about rolling this out to larger patient populations, the risk-reward of any procedure is a fundamental consideration for anyone considering medical technology,” Mager said. “If your system is either irreversible, or potentially damaging upon explantation, it just means the commitment that you’re making to getting the implant is that much greater.”
Jacob Robinson, associate professor of electrical engineering at Rice University and founder of the BCI company Motif Neurotech, said Precision is making exciting strides in the minimally invasive BCI space. He said that it’s not just patients who have to weigh the risks and benefits of a procedure, but physicians and insurance companies as well.
Robinson said physicians have to weigh procedures quantitatively and based on existing literature, while insurance companies have to weigh the costs for their patients, so the less invasive surgery makes it easier on all three parties.
“It’s lower risk, but it also means that there’s an opportunity to treat more people, there’s greater adoption,” he said.
But because the device isn’t inserted directly into the brain tissue, Robinson said the resolution of the brain signals is not going to be as strong as it is in some other BCI devices.
“You get much better resolution than you would from outside the skull, not quite as high resolution as you go into the tissue,” he said. “But there’s a lot that you can do with this kind of medium scale.”
Precision has successfully used its Layer 7 device to decode neural signals in animals, and Mager said he hopes to get FDA approval to test the technology in humans in coming months.
The company announced a $41 million Series B funding round Wednesday, bringing its total to $53 million in under two years. The funding will allow Precision to hone its product, hire more employees and accelerate toward FDA regulatory review, a goal Mager said Precision is working toward quickly.
“We don’t want the next 15 years to be like the last 15 years, where this helps a few dozen people. So I think we’re in a hurry,” he said. “What we hear consistently [from patients] is, ‘We want this, and we want it sooner rather than later.'”
Mager said he thinks this year is proving to be a “watershed year” in neurotechnology, and that there has been a lot of positive momentum in the BCI space in terms of funding.
Though he said he understands the skepticism that exists around BCIs and technology as a whole, Mager said he thinks there is a real potential to make a difference for millions of people suffering from neurological conditions.
“I think that the brain is, in a lot of ways, the next frontier for modern medicine,” he said. “The fact that there are so many people who have neurological impairments of one sort or another, and that we have such crude tools to offer them, is going to change. It is changing.”