Some of the numbers are cold in the back. In twenty years, the drug industry spent 40 billion dollars without managing to find an effective remedy against Alzheimer’s disease. An admission of powerlessness that we may extend to other neurodegenerative pathologies. “On Parkinson’s, there is still a long way to go,” said Alexis Genin, Head of Research at the Institute of the brain and spinal cord (ICM). Not to mention cancers of the brain, extremely fast and devastating”. Well decided to put the development of new approaches, the research centre of paris is increasingly turning to start-ups. It is already hosting 25. Among them, Ni2o, an american company which develops implants to the brain. Its founder explains, to Express the main principles of this advanced technology, which may, in time, improve significantly the lives of millions of patients.
The EXPRESS : Ni2o is working on a new brain implant capable of treating the major disorders of the brain and neurodegenerative diseases. How it works ?
Newton Howard : The principle is simple. It is to put the implant in the area of the brain that we need to deal with. In the case of Parkinson’s for example, we are targeting the subthalamic nucleus. Once in place, the device interacts with the neurons of the patient. It analyses its environment and delivers the stimuli to be adequate : either the light or electrical impulses. Our implant is not larger than a grain of rice, and it weighs less than two grams. It is based on research carried out at Oxford in Great Britain, at the Massachusetts Institute of technology (MIT) in Cambridge (Usa), Georgetown university (United States), but also on the know-how of the manufacturers of microprocessors americans as Intel or Qualcomm.
Newton Howard, co-founder of Ni2o, has chosen Paris to develop his brain implant
Many specialists work on the implants, and the stimulation of certain areas of the brain. How is your technique different ?
The implants today are placed by craniotomy may require more than 14 hours of surgery, and can cause nosocomial infections. In addition, they do not solve the problems temporarily. With our technology, there is no need of surgery. The implant is introduced in a couple of hours by the nasal cavity. The originality of our method is to combine electrophysiology [the study of the electrical activity of the cells], the optogenetic [a technology that allows you to stimulate neurons with light], and research on stem cells. With these three elements, we will be able to reprogram neural networks, or even push the growth of neurons are completely dead. Thus, we will obtain the long-term effects on patients. All that sounds complex, but the therapeutic modalities in each of the three areas mentioned above, are already well established. On the other hand, they had never been combined until now.
How to control the stimuli to the implant and to ensure that they do not overflow the desired area ?
Our implant has an area of “projection” of about one cubic centimeter. Moreover, the strength of the signals emitted is very low. Finally, a chip allows for the use of “machine learning” directly to the brain. For example, our implant adapts to the environment and may change the area of effect to be reduced to a micron.
Your technique is relatively invasive for patients. But it generates-does it have side effects such as personality disorders ?
When inserting an implant, it is done in areas that are very specific to the brain, building on the work of neuroscientists. They know very well what effects occur when the stimulation is such and such a part of our grey matter. Some interventions, for example, can lead to aggression. Others will rather generate movements in the patient. Thanks to a precise monitoring, we are able to verify that it has a therapeutic effect without personality changes or other side effects.
At what rate do you intend to perform your tests ?
We give twenty-four months to develop our technology, and truly prove that it works. First, we will perform tests on pre-clinical in the laboratory of the ICM, on pigs and monkeys. If these trials are successful, we should move to human trials in the next two years.