This summer, doctors in St Louis shaved away a small part of a person's skull and replaced it with electrodes. The technology is intended to alleviate the patient's severe depression by sending tiny electric pulses to the brain.
The startup behind the surgery is Inner Cosmos, one of a growing cadre of tech companies working on implanted devices for the brain. The trial, the first of its kind using implants in the bone of the skull to treat depression, represents a step forward for scientists' efforts to treat mood disorders with hardware. It's also a sign of progress for implants that sit within the skull itself.
"Any time you get a technology in a patient is a major milestone," said Benjamin Rapoport, a New York-based brain surgeon who works with another company in the field.
Other high-profile brain-related startups are focused on helping people cope with paralysis. Elon Musk says his company Neuralink has enabled monkeys to play video games with their minds. And Synchron Inc. recently started its first US human trial, which it hopes will let a person send emails and texts using only thoughts, as earlier Synchron patients have done in Australia.
Unlike these companies, Inner Cosmos for now is focused on moods. It also uses a different type of surgery, allowing the device to be implanted within the bone of the skull. It's less invasive than the technique planned by Neuralink, which has raised more than $360 million, and aims to place electrodes deeper inside the brain.
The simpler the surgery, the more people are likely to be open to it, said Inner Cosmos Chief Executive Officer Meron Gribetz. That's helpful for the company's goal of creating a new mass-market tool for treatment-resistant depression, which affects an estimated 2.8 million US adults. "We want to get the largest number of patients help," Gribetz said.
As the technology around brain implants develops, more companies have pursued methods of embedding a device that don't require actually piercing the brain itself. "Whether it penetrates brain tissue or not is a deep divide" when it comes to next-generation neuromodulation surgery, said Rapoport, who is the co-founder of brain-computer interface company Precision Neuroscience Corp. Before Precision Neuroscience, Rapoport was a founding member of Neuralink. Now, his company is focused on placing electrodes just inside the skull, on top of the brain, via a device thinner than Scotch tape.