In honor of Oliver Sacks: 5 companies revolutionizing brain tech


On Sunday, renowned author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, at the age of 82, lost his battle with cancer. His personal, case-focused writing which explored the minds of patients facing serious conditions (including his own) was immensely popular.

In honor of his life, we have compiled a list of five of the most innovative brain tech companies and projects operating today.

1. Ottobock

Photo Credit: Ottobock
Photo Credit: Ottobock

Remember that time (spoiler) Luke Skywalker got his hand cut off by the father who loved him so much he abandoned his mother for a cushy Washington job with the Emperor so he had to get a mechanical hand covered by real skin?

That’s possible now.

Ottobock has started working with governments to offer war veterans a new lease on limb by outfitting wounded soldiers with modern bionic arms and legs. Their approach is different from other companies that program their prosthetics to a limited number of commands. Ottobock is rewiring severed limbs to metal wiring to rebuild the nerve networks that are headquartered in your brain.

One British vet, Andrew Garthwaite, was eligible for one of the company’s pioneering surgeries in 2012. He was a prosthetic tester already, having been fit and refit for a number of prototypes, including one that allowed him the nifty bar trick of rotating his robotic hand an entire 360 degrees. If anyone deserves sun notoriety, it’s probably someone whose arm was lost fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“That’s really exciting because, in the future we will have little senses in these artificial fingers and they will have direct sensory feedback,” said Professor Oskar Aszmann, who performed the nerve realignment surgery.

Combined with other projects, such as the installing of prosthetic skin that could signal nerves to literally reinstall a sense of touch, a Luke Skywalker-like hand is realistically within our grasp.

2. Emotiv

Imagine a decent sci-fi flick where one of the main characters has superpowers/is an alien/can see the future. Government scientists would immediately plop a massive cranial accessory atop that character’s head and start reading said character’s brainwaves.

EEG readings can tell doctors and scientists a lot about what someone is thinking. But actually getting hooked up to such a machine only happens for neurological procedures or studies. Among several other startups, Emotiv wants access to that information for health and wellness purposes. Its solution? A mass marketable product that costs less than a laptop.

Emotiv’s headgear will tell you how your mind is working, giving you real-time analysis on your attention, interest, excitement, and stress levels, among other nodes. You can also analyze your patterns over time, as the company markets its product to anyone who wants to know if their cognitive skills are keeping up with age.

The company sells two main products: Insight at $299 and EPOC at $399. While Insight analyzes data across five EEG channels and can go on four hours of battery life, the more advanced EPOC covers 14 channels and can go 12 hours without recharge.

3. Neuroelectrics

Neuroelectrics similarly records brain activity, but does a bit more than that. A Valencian-American company that Ana Maiques and Giulio Ruffini founded in Barcelona three years ago, the company markets its Neuroelectric Cap headgear to stimulate the wearer’s with EEG (electroencephalography) and tDCS (transcranial Direct Current Stimulation), according to Wired Magazine.

Their product not only record, but also soothes. Comparing itself to health wearable company FitBit, its head sleeves stimulate the brain while recording information.

The company markets their analytics-only Enobio and stimulator-infused Starstim. While not available to the public, it is already being used in research projects and hospital treatments in over 30 countries.

4. ElMindA

ElMindA, an Israeli startup, 3D renders neural data into a visual map of brain activity. This way, the data is more accessible and easier to obtain.

Their BNA solution is designed to be used bedside by patients, letting doctors get frequent updates via a secure linkup. Some doctors are already using it to monitor brain recovery from trauma.

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum also named the startup one of the 50 most innovative startups in the world. In particular, the company can detect early signs of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

5. The Butterfly Network

Photo Credit: Butterfly Network / YouTube
Photo Credit: Butterfly Network / YouTube

The Butterfly Network is one of the many projects of serial entrepreneur and DNA researcher Jonathan Rothberg, who has charged the startup with building the smallest and cheapest medical imaging device ever. At a few hundred dollars, in his words it would be “as cheap as a stethoscope” and could image brain tumors and show a developing fetus in the womb.

The devices, dubbed “capacitive micro-machined ultrasound transducers” (CMUTs), would be embedded in a phone or tablet and when held up against the body, would display an ultrasound-generated image. Incidentally, the imaging technique would also produce cheaper and more entertaining three-dimensional movies than most of the film industry.

Amazingly, the devices would also serve as a form of therapy. Rothberg has already experimented with using ultrasounds and MRIs to detect cancer cells and its patent suggests the tech may send signals to brain cells and kill cancer cells by heating them up with sound waves.


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