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It seems leading scientists and industry specialists are not alone on their quest to rewire the human brain. Over recent years, neurotech has also sparked interest from businesses and individuals well outside the medical sector. Now, advancements in the industry are on track to offer humans—and businesses—endless new opportunities that will not only benefit our health, but also take us beyond human limits.
Neurotech is moving quickly. In 2015, the U.S. neurostimulation devices market was valued at $2 billion, and Grand View Research estimates it to exceed $12 billion by 2023. While the primary aim is to treat and banish degenerative neurological diseases, neurotech has the power to unlock and interpret the brain’s complex workings and attract a gold rush of interest in the process.
The Plight of Aging
With more than 600 diseases of the nervous system, there is no denying that the potential market for neurotech is huge globally. One in four people worldwide suffers from a brain-related illness, according to Roger Dooley, and these statistics only worsen as the population ages. The World Economic Forum even estimates that one in three people is disabled by dementia after the age of 80, pointing to a critical need for further neurotech research and development.
But despite the prevalence of such diseases, treatment currently remains challenging in practice. My research, which included patients with Parkinson’s Disease, found that despite the high number of patients over the age of 60 with mild symptoms of a neurological disease, most will not receive a comprehensive neuro exam because of the short amount of time primary care physicians are given to examine them. In fact, most patients are only diagnosed once they have been in an accident, such as a car accident or a major fall causing a broken bone.
The problem extends beyond diagnosis, too. Once patients are diagnosed, treatment and referrals are full of errors and obstacles. Medication that currently exists comes with a list of side effects, contributing to a major compromise of quality of life. For example, my research found that the majority of people over the age of 65 are taking seven medications every day.
These findings sadly show that because of delayed diagnosis, a lack of treatment options, and unpleasant medication, management for these neurological diseases currently falls short. However, the findings also point to the fact that the neurotech market is ripe for growth and offers potential to solve some of the biggest health problems currently facing our society.
Neurotech No Longer a Thing of the Future
But it’s not just the market that exists; the technology to serve it does, too. The last decade has been a golden age of discovery in neuroscience. Technological breakthroughs have translated into scalable diagnostic and therapeutic solutions for people with brain disorders. And there’s no doubt that as neurotech continues to provide answers, more money and research will be thrown in.
Just consider some of the advancements that have already been made. At the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, viewers witnessed a paraplegic man literally kick off the opening ceremony thanks to an exoskeleton that allowed him to walk again. Built by the National Science Foundation, Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, and the Walk Again Project, the exoskeleton used computer algorithms to interpret the user’s brain activity and power the exoskeleton forward.
In addition, earlier this year, scientists took a step closer to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s after unveiling a “brain pacemaker” that successfully slows down the disease, reported Express. The device is fitted into the skull, with two thin electrical wires into the frontal lobes of the brain. These wires deliver electrical current that helps stimulate parts of the brain.
While it is still the early days of neurotech, recent advancements such as these have shown extreme promise, hinting at a bright future for both the users and developers of the technology.
Non-Medical Companies Want In
Accordingly, neurotech’s early success in science has attracted the likes of Elon Musk, Facebook, and even the U.S. military, reported The Verge. In 2017, Facebook (per TechCrunch) and Elon Musk’s new firm, Neuralink, began developing high-level processing and machine learning platforms to facilitate a seamless brain-computer interface. This interface already shows abundant evidence that it can be used not only for treatment of disease, but for human augmentation or enhancement as well. Facebook claims that in the near future, the interface will allow users to send words straight from their brains to a computer by thought, Gizmodo reported.
But Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg aren’t the only influencers who want entry into our heads. Google Ventures, backed by parent company Alphabet Inc., has been investing heavily in biotech, medtech, and digital health ventures (per Med Device Online) since 2016. Furthermore, seasoned Silicon Valley executive Mary Lou Jepsen left Facebook to launch brain tech startup Openwater, an optical-imaging system that provides high-resolution images comparable to MRI scans, according to IEEE Spectrum.
Even former President Barack Obama has placed neurotech as a priority. His BRAIN Initiative has allocated $70 million to DARPA (per Wired) to kickstart the field of brain implants. DARPA’s Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) program, which aims to provide precision communication between the brain and the digital world, is just one of many programs inaugurated under Obama's BRAIN Initiative, Gizmodo reported.
Merging the human brain with technology has therefore become the latest craze for many in and outside the medical sphere. These companies and leading figures have either initiated or significantly increased their investments in neurotechnology over the last 18 months, which in turn will encourage others to do the same. If Elon Musk believes neurotech could be the next big thing, then rest assured it will be.
With the critical need for solutions increasing, and promising advancements making headway, the neurotech revolution will only see more money and interest being poured in. It’s therefore clear that neurotech will be the gold rush of the 21st century.