Developments and state of the art of neurotechnology in New Zealand.
Neurotechnology in New Zealand is a rapidly advancing field, with research being conducted in both academia and industry.
One of the key areas of research in New Zealand is in the development of neural prosthetics. These devices, which interface with the nervous system, have the potential to restore function to those who have lost it due to injury or disease. For example, researchers at the University of Auckland are developing implantable devices that can be used to restore movement to people with spinal cord injuries.
The Implantable Devices Group at the University of Auckland has been researching the potential of implantable devices to make a significant impact on people's lives. They have been working on developing a wireless heart pump that can be charged overnight and run all day without the need for cables and connections, potentially eliminating the issue of drive-line infections. Additionally, the group has been developing small, power-efficient, wireless data acquisition systems that can be implanted for long-term monitoring of physiological signals. These devices are now available through the Auckland-based company Kaha Sciences.
A team of researchers in the Implantable Devices Group at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI) are developing an implantable medical pressure sensor to be placed in the brains of patients with hydrocephalus. Hydrocephalus is a condition where fluid accumulates in the brain, which can be fatal if left untreated. The current treatment is a thin tube or shunt surgically implanted in the brain that drains and diverts excess fluid from the brain, but the shunt often blocks, resulting in increased pressure around the brain and reduced blood supply to key areas. The device would be the first New Zealand-designed fully implanted electronic medical device and would offer early warning of a likely blockage, thus preventing unnecessary hospitalizations. The implantable sensor is part of an intracranial pressure (ICP) measurement system that also includes a handheld wand that is held near the head, which wakes up the device, and a pressure reading is sent back to the wand. The system enables a measurement of ICP to be read by the patient or their caregivers and shared with healthcare professionals electronically on the Cloud and through a mobile phone, through an app designed by the team. Ultimately, they will be seeking approval from the FDA, which recognizes three classes of medical devices. Class III medical devices, such as this implantable sensor, are those of substantial importance in preventing impairment of human health but also pose the highest risk to patients.
Professor Simon Malpas leads the Inplantable Devices Group at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute. Photo: Claire Concannon/RNZ. https://www.auckland.ac.nz/
Professor Simon Malpas leads the Implantable Devices Group at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute. He is the CEO of Kitea Health. Kitea is a next generation medical device company headquartered in Auckland New Zealand. Founded from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute with substantial backing for its research platform from the Health Research Council, Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment and a variety of charitable bodies. The company is in the preclinical stage for its first clinical device for the management of hydrocephalus.
Another area of research in New Zealand is in the development of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). BCIs allow people to control computers and other devices using their thoughts, which has the potential to greatly improve the quality of life for people with severe physical disabilities. Researchers at the University of Otago and the Auckland University of Technology are working on developing BCIs that can be used to control prosthetic limbs and other assistive devices.
New Zealand is playing a role in developing brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that enable humans to control machines using their minds. Thought-Wired, a start-up with offices in Auckland and Melbourne, has developed the nousBlink system that interprets brain waves and muscle movements through a headband, allowing people who can't speak or move their limbs to control their home devices or access the internet via their computer. Dmitry Yu Selitskiy is the CEO and he ultimately wants to “let anyone control anything with their mind”.
TransAxon is working with AI-BCIs linking physiological psychology and artificial intelligence to repair and improve brains. Michael Witbrock, Co-Founder and CEO, with the TransAxon team are developing full, "better than reality", function- and memory-enhancing Autogenous Induced Brain-Computer interfaces (AI-BCI) that don’t injure the brain and don’t require much more “surgery” than Lasik or a tattoo. We’ll do this by harnessing the natural neurogenesis processes that originally built our brains, re-applying it to grow a biological bridge that connects an adult brain safely to an interface outside the skull. And we’ll apply AI-level machine learning to achieve complete functional integration. On the path to the full product, we’ll lead with drug development platforms and then therapeutic implants, initially for vision and speech. Outset Ventures and Icehouse Ventures are supporting this initiative.
Getting photons into and out of areas with a high degree of control underpins all aspects of optical approaches to BCIs. Staying aware of the capabilities and developments in this field will ensure TransAxon is ready to implement such systems, when and where we need to. The open question is if these systems could eventually work through skin, muscle and perhaps a skull. Still to find out. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-03395-z
Researchers at the University of Otago are working on BMIs that could help treat mental illness, while the Auckland University of Technology is looking to overcome the challenge of complex brainwave translation by developing an artificial intelligence algorithm that mimics the human brain.
Shenghuan Zhang and scientists at the University of Otago have developed machine learning models that use EEG (electroencephalography) data to predict depressivity, a measure of personality traits rather than just sickness. The team designed novel techniques to clean up the EEG data, and then used different combinations of signal processing techniques and machine learning algorithms to generate the models. They found that the models could accurately predict depressivity, particularly for women, and that the gamma band of EEG data made the biggest contribution to these predictions. The research opens up possibilities for using EEG data to measure personality traits and could be extended to other mental health conditions, such as anxiety.
In this context they created a device that could, for example, give the person an alert to make them more aware of their mental state as a kind of mindfulness training. It’s a high-tech version of a technique called neuro-feedback, which trains people to regulate their own brains by showing them their brain activity.
These neuro-feedback brain-machine interfaces could help people suffering from a host of mental health issues including ADHD, depression and anxiety.
So far, the team has developed a proof-of-concept headset that reads brainwaves and a computer algorithm that can translate those brainwaves into making a drone fly.
Instead of trying to analyze many different types of brainwaves, the Otago-based research team has focused on a single channel. The Associate Professor Zhiyi Huang said “we have external funding from a few Chinese companies who initially wanted video game controllers using EEG [electroencephalographic] technology, reading brainwaves and translating those into commands then sent to the game via Bluetooth”.
One research team based at the Auckland University of Technology is tackling the artificial intelligence side of the challenge. To get around some of the difficulties in translating complex brainwaves into instructions for a machine, they’ve created a computer algorithm that mimics the human brain.
The artificial intelligence, called NeuCube, maps the brain’s structures and functions and could be used to control devices in the same way our brains control our real limbs (https://github.com/Auckland-University-of-Technology/NeuCube-java).
“We want to make this system more brain-like, so we can better interpret the signals this system has learned,” said team leader Nikola Kasabov. “We want a better understanding of what the brain is doing.”
Brain-Like Artificial Intelligence (BLAI) is pioneered by Prof. Nikola Kasabov and here it is one of its realizations.
The NeuCube on Chip is a software system for the creation of large spiking neuron models in real time that run on the SpiNNaker multi-core system developed by the University of Manchester group of Prof. Steve Furber.
Each SpiNNaker chip has 18 ARM968 cores; they are connected via an asynchronous packet switcher for faster communication. The system runs in real-time, which means that an interactive application that could propagate and change the synaptic weights on the fly could be implemented, this would not only speed up the model training but could also control the flow of spikes and modifications in the weights. The SpiNNaker natively implements a simplified form of STDP learning rule between its connections this adds advantage over software implementation.
NeuCube could take advantage of SpiNNaker machines unsupervised learning and speed up the learning process. Also, we could increase the number of neurons from thousands to millions.
Neurotechnology in New Zealand is also being used to develop treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders. For example, researchers at the University of Auckland are using deep brain stimulation (DBS) to treat Parkinson's disease and other movement disorders. DBS involves the use of implantable electrodes to deliver electrical stimulation to specific areas of the brain.
In fact, one of the key players in neurotechnology research in New Zealand is the Centre for Brain Research (CBR) at the University of Auckland ). The CBR is a multidisciplinary research institute that focuses on understanding the brain and developing new treatments for neurological disorders. The CBR has a number of research programs focused on areas such as stroke, Alzheimer's disease, and epilepsy, and is home to a range of advanced neuroimaging technologies such as MRI, EEG, and PET.
Another prominent research institute in New Zealand is the Neurological Foundation of New Zealand. The foundation is a non-profit organization that funds research into neurological disorders, and also provides education and support for people affected by these conditions. The foundation has a particular focus on conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease.
In addition to research, there are also several companies in New Zealand that are working to commercialize neurotechnology. For example, Neurotech NZ is a New Zealand-based company that develops and commercializes neurotechnology products such as brain-computer interfaces and neurofeedback systems.
Focused on developing neurotechnology products and therapies, there are companies like BrainZ, which develops advanced monitoring systems for neonatal intensive care units to help detect and prevent brain damage in newborns. Another company, AurorA BioMed, is focused on developing new therapies for conditions such as epilepsy and chronic pain.
The state of neurotechnology in New Zealand is robust and growing, with a number of research institutes and companies dedicated to advancing the field. The country has a particular focus on understanding and treating neurological disorders, and has made significant progress in developing new therapies and technologies to help people affected by these conditions.