AI in Focus: Brain-Computer Interface Technologies
February 4, 2022
By Chantalle Briggs and Melanie Szweras
Mind-controlled exoskeletons and advanced neuroprosthetics; virtual and augmented reality; wearable devices that use brain-based data to influence a user’s emotions and moods – these were once the domain of science-fiction. Today, they are increasingly within the realm of scientific-fact, and will impact everything from health care, to gaming, to national security and defence. With the anticipated growth of this field, a boom in patent filings is sure to follow.
The Global Landscape
It is an exciting era for brain-computer interface (BCI) technology. Many countries around the world have massive ongoing funding programs for brain-based research, and these initiatives include funding streams for AI and brain-inspired computing. The European Union’s Human Brain Project, for example, will provide an estimated EUR 1.19 billion over its mandate,[i] while the United States’ BRAIN Initiative will invest an estimated USD 6.6 billion through the year 2027[ii] and includes funding for public-private partnerships.[iii] Some of the major innovating markets in Asia are also investing heavily in this area of R&D. The China Brain Project is estimated to be worth USD 1 billion through 2030,[iv] while Japan is investing an estimated JPY 40 billion (more than CAD 435 million) in their Brain/MINDS project.[v]
Patents on emerging technologies tend to trail a few years behind the underlying foundational research, so a surge is expected over the next decade. In fact, some predict the BCI market will almost double in value between 2021 and 2026, alone.[vi] Quick surveys of the medical and patent literature both show exponential growth in annual BCI publications over the past 30 years, which has not yet begun to taper off (Figure 1). Figure 1 likely represents an underestimate of the true numbers of publications on BCI technologies, as results are limited to the search terms used.
Figure 1. Number of academic articles (blue circles) and patent documents (orange triangles) published each year (grouped in 2-year bins) between 1990-2021 mentioning at least one of the following terms: “brain computer interface”; “brain machine interface”; “neural control interface”; “mind machine interface”; and “direct neural interface”.
The Canadian Landscape
On the development side of BCI technology, many will have seen big headline-makers like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which has recently filed several patent applications in the US, Canada, and around the world (see for example US patent 10,824,579, which discloses a network on a chip used to receive and process neurological events captured by electrodes). This is just one example. BCI R&D is happening across the board from big companies to small, including here in Canada.
Canada has its own national brain research funding initiative, called the Canada Brain Research Fund, which has provided CAD 267 million in new funding as of 2021. Canada also invests heavily in the field of AI through, for example, CIFAR. However, there are also funding opportunities for BCI biotechnology startups, including the Ontario Brain Institute’s Neurotech Early Research and Development program[vii] and NERVE Program,[viii] which provides CAD 100,000 to up to 5 early-stage businesses annually, with the goal of developing a globally competitive neurotech cluster in Ontario. The Creative Destruction Lab also announced its newest funding stream in 2021, called The Neuro Stream,[ix] based in Toronto. Some of the areas of innovation under this stream include BCI technology and neuroprosthetics, specifically.
There are already many examples of exciting home-grown BCI-based innovation. In Calgary, Neuraura is developing brain sensor technologies, like electrodes, and monitoring platforms to assist with treating epilepsy and migraines, and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Meanwhile in Halifax, Axem Neurotechnology is developing wearable technology and applications that measure cortical blood oxygen levels using functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to assist with stroke recovery.
In Ontario, we have companies like Zentrela, NeuroQore, LUCID, and Nurosene. Zentrela and NeuroQore are developing non-invasive technologies, including Zentrela’s electroencephalogram (EEG)-based neurotechnology platform to quantify the psychoactive effects of cannabis products, and NeuroQore’s repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS)-based platform to treat depression. Meanwhile, LUCID is developing an “affective nudging” platform that collects biometric data to determine a user’s emotions and moods and employs a deep learning system to present the user with a curated music experience to “nudge” the user towards a desired outcome (e.g., relaxation or sleep). Finally, Nurosene develops AI technologies to assist research into treatments for neurodegenerative diseases. In late November 2021, Toronto’s Nurosene announced a new partnership with Oxford University’s Ni2o,[x] which will see Nurosene’s AI combined with Ni2o’s wireless kiwi brain implant to provide more precise treatment options.
Looking forward, we expect to see an increasing number of BCI-based patent applications, with companies patenting everything from their methods, to their hardware, to their software. However, given that some of these technologies are non-invasive, while others are very invasive, BCI-based inventions can also present companies with a quagmire of regulatory concerns, including related to market approval, system security, and privacy protection, not least because our laws are often unprepared for disruptive technologies.
For more information, or if you have questions about protecting your intellectual property assets or obtaining regulatory approval for BCI-based technologies, please feel free to contact our medical device, artificial intelligence, or regulatory practice groups.
This has been the ninth article in our AI in Focus series. You can read the first eight articles here:
- AI in Focus – Autonomous Vehicles
- AI in Focus – Fundamental Artificial Intelligence and Video Games
- AI in Focus – Robotics
- AI in Focus – Natural Language Processing
- AI in Focus – BlueDot and the Response to COVID-19
- AI in Focus – Image Recognition
- AI in Focus – Genomics
- AI in Focus – The Human Microbiome
If you have any ideas for other topics that you would like us to cover in our next article in this series, please email Isi Caulder, Co-Leader of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) practice group at Bereskin & Parr LLP.
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