Synchron rival to Musk’s Neuralink readies large-scale brain implant trial

Synchron CEO Tom Oxley at the Synchron offices in Brooklyn, New York City. Photo: Reuters

Synchron CEO Tom Oxley at the Synchron offices in Brooklyn, New York City. Photo: Reuters

Published Apr 9, 2024


Synchron, a rival to Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain implant startup is preparing to recruit patients for a large-scale clinical trial required to seek commercial approval for its device, the company’s chief executive told Reuters.

Synchron on Monday plans to launch an online registry for patients interested in joining the trial meant to include dozens of participants, and has received interest from about 120 clinical trial centres to help run the study, CEO Thomas Oxley said in an interview.

“Part of this registry is to start to enable local physicians to speak to patients with motor impairment,” he said. “There’s a lot of interest so we don’t want it to come in a big bottleneck right before the study we’ll be doing.”

New-York based Synchron is farther along in the process of testing its brain implant than Neuralink. Both companies initially aim to help paralysed patients type on a computer using devices that interpret brain signals.

Synchron received US authorisation for preliminary testing in July, 2021, and has implanted its device in six patients. Prior testing in four patients in Australia showed no serious adverse side-effects, the company has reported.

Synchron would be analysing the US data to prepare for the larger study, while awaiting authorisation from the US Food and Drug Administration to proceed, Oxley said. Synchron and the FDA declined to comment on the expected timing of that decision.

The company aimed to include patients paralysed due to the neurodegenerative disease ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), stroke and multiple sclerosis, Oxley said.

Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, the University at Buffalo Neurosurgery and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre (UPMC) are collaborating on the preliminary study. Synchron said it hoped to involve these centres in the larger trial.

David Lacomis, the chief of UPMC’s neuromuscular division, said his team was still participating in the preliminary human testing “and the study is going well”.

“Subjects continue to be monitored for safety and an extensive amount of data is being collected as the brain implant is being used,” he said. “A much larger pivotal trial is in the planning stages.”

The department of neurosurgery in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo has two patients in the small trial.

“Our site has enrolled the first and only stroke patient as we feel this is a significant population that can benefit,” said department chair Dr Elad Levy. “We are optimistic and excited about the next phases of this technology.”

Expanding the market

Synchron, whose investors include billionaires Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, and Neuralink compete in a niche of so-called brain computer interface (BCI) devices. Such devices use electrodes that penetrate the brain or sit on its surface to provide direct communication to computers. No company has received final FDA approval to market a BCI brain implant.

Synchron’s device is delivered to the brain via the large vein that sits next to the motor cortex in the brain instead of being surgically implanted into the brain cortex like Neuralink’s.

Neuralink, which has mainly announced developments on Musk’s social media platform X, did not respond to questions about its clinical trial. The company has so far announced that it implanted its device in one paralysed patient.

Testing an implant in stroke patients can be particularly challenging, as an individual’s brain may be so severely damaged that there isn’t sufficient neural signalling to record.

The FDA has asked Synchron to screen stroke patients using a non-invasive test to determine whether they would respond to an implant, Oxley said.

“They want to expand the market to people who have had a stroke severe enough to cause paralysis because if limited to quadriplegia, the market is way too small to be sustainable,” Kip Ludwig, a former programme director for neural engineering at the US National Institutes of Health, said of Synchron.

In 2020, Synchron reported that patients in its Australian study could use its first-generation device to type an average of 16 characters per minute.

That’s better than non-invasive devices that sit atop the head and record the electrical activity of the brain, which have helped people type up to eight characters per minute, but not the leap forward that is hoped for with an implant, Ludwig said.

Oxley would not say whether typing has got faster or offer any other details from the ongoing US trial.

In May, 2023 Synchron said it had acquired an equity stake in medical component-maker Acquandas, as it looked to boost manufacturing. Musk has approached Synchron about an investment in the past, Reuters reported.