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Neural device market grows

Posted: 15 Nov 2010 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:neural implants? electrode arrays? sensors?

Neural devices for medical conditions such as epilepsy, stroke and depression are coming soon, with startups already awaiting regulatory approval.

NeuroPace is one of the company's in the emerging neural device sector that is poised for significant growth.

In July, NeuroPace submitted its brain implant to treat epilepsy for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Developed over a decade, the company hopes the responsive neurostimulator (RNS) system will be approved for use within a year.

"Over the next decade, I believe a variety of closed and open loop brain stimulation devices will replace destructive [surgical] procedures," said Martha Morrell, chief medical officer at NeuroPace.

Trials with the epilepsy implant has given researchers new insights into the technology's potential to serve conditions ranging from pain management and depression to Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

"This is the first time we could look into the brain and see what's happening in real time," Morrell said. "We see this as a disease management tool," she said.

The RNS implant, which uses two custom chips, found abnormal brain activity in epilepsy patients was more extensive than previously thought.

"No one had ambulatory records of epileptic patients before, and it turned out the seizure was just the tip of iceberg," she said. "We found these patients need stimulation as much as 600 times a day for periods of typically 1-2 minutes," she added.

Doctors can program the device to sense and respond to a broad range of conditions. NeuroPace also maintains a database for long term studies of brain wave activity.

Morrell said she sees the potential for devices that deliver tiny doses of drugs as well as electrical stimulation to targeted areas of the brain. New electrode arrays and sensors will help expand the field of conditions such devices can address. Beyond brain waves, researchers are studying the flow in the brain of blood, oxygen, neural transmitters�and even temperature changes--as other ways to influence conditions.

Market outlook
The market for neural devices is valued at about $7 billion, growing at about 15 percent annually, according to market watcher NeuroInsights.

Neural modulation devices like the NeuroPace implant make up about $2.3 billion of the sector, growing at 14 percent a year. Neural surgical devices represent another big share at $3.5 billion, expanding at 17 percent a year.

Venture capital investment in the sector has been robust, despite VC difficulties overall and in health care specifically. VC investments in neural tech rose nine percent to $1.58 billion in 2009 at a time when investments in life sciences overall were decreasing.

There's plenty to invest in. Startup NeoStim is working on a non-invasive way to deliver magnetic stimulation to targets in the deep brain to relieve severe depression. The technique could be expanded to different regions of the brain and spine to address problems such as Parkinson's disease, pain and anxiety, said M. Brett Schneider, chief medical officer of the company.

Trifectas Medical Corp. is developing an implant to aid stroke recovery. It electrically stimulates areas of the brain to promote nerve cell and hormone growth and reduce inflammation.

About half the 800,000 people who have strokes each year would be candidates for the device, said Reese Terry, executive and co-founder, Trifectas.

"I am extremely bullish on the approach Reese has," said Schneider about the Trifectas implant. "Just like a muscle grows strong by being used, cells sprout new axons and dendrites when stimulated, so this will be a real boon to stroke survivors and even have implications for general cognitive development in people who may have no disease conditions at all," Schneider added.

The new devices face plenty of challenges. Researchers use high resolution brain imaging to link conditions to activity in specific parts of the brain, but the technique is expensive and time consuming.

For example, Orasi Medical develops modeling software for use with a technique called magneto-encephalography which can measure activity as short as a millisecond in duration in a centimeter-sized area of the brain. But the ultra-sensitive systems use superconducting components that must be bathed in liquid helium and thus cost two million dollars. They must be used in a specially shielded room that can cost half a million dollars to construct.

"We are really interested in people who have technology that can make this more portable so tests could be done in a physician's office," said Shawn Lyndon, CEO, Orasi.

Shawn Lyndon: Seeking powerful but inexpensive imaging.

NeoStim's external magnetic stimulators are based on relatively old technology such as large capacitors and high power switching thyristors. "New materials and components may be better for rapidly storing and discharging energy," said Schneider.

Implants need better batteries and more powerful, yet safer ways to deliver energy to tissues without burning them. A Stanford lab is working on ways to use light from LEDs to trigger activity in neurons, he added.

At a practical level, researchers still don't know which sorts of patients will or will not respond to device treatments or even how to measure outcomes in a consistent way, said Terry. "Each area takes trials, and that means years of work and lots of money, but there's tremendous opportunity here because the body works on electrical energy," he said.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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