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BrainCom Report Summary

Project ID: 732032
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.2.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BrainCom (High-density cortical implants for cognitive neuroscience and rehabilitation of speech using brain-computer interfaces.)

Reporting period: 2016-12-01 to 2017-11-30

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Over 5 million people suffer from aphasia worldwide, most often following a brain stroke, but also from neurodegenerative disorders affecting the motor production and articulation of speech, locked-in syndrome, or coma. While motor rehabilitation training can help people recover some of their speech ability in case of partial aphasia, new approaches remain to be explored to restore communication and, ultimately, speech in severe aphasic patients.

The goal of BrainCom is to develop a new generation of neuroprosthetic devices suitable to explore and repair high-level cognitive functions, with a primary focus on the restoration of speech and communication in aphasic patients.

An important limitation to this goal is the lack of animal models to detail the cortical dynamics of the speech network. Taking advantage of lesion cases and non-invasive neuroimaging studies, this network has been extensively characterized at a macroscopic level in humans. However, very few data is available at the cellular and multicellular level, which is the required resolution to obtain sufficient decoding precision to predict continuous speech. One of the reasons is the lack of an available technology capable of recording neural signals with a high spatial and temporal resolutions over large cortical areas. With this technology at hand, we will eventually identify the areas to extract the most relevant signals and properly understand the meaning of cortical signals to optimize decoding protocols.

The overarching goal of BrainCom is to nurture a technology paradigm shift by developing a new generation of very large-scale neuroprosthetic cortical devices based on novel materials and technologies that can provide a unique leap forward towards a new level of basic understanding of cortical speech networks and the advancement of rehabilitation solutions to restore speech and communication capabilities in disabled patients using innovative brain-computer paradigms. Ultimately, BrainCom will foster a novel line of knowledge and technologies that will seed the future generation of speech neural prostheses. To target the broadly distributed neural system of the language network, BrainCom will use novel electronic technologies based on nanomaterials in order to fabricate ultra-flexible cortical and intracortical implants enabling high density recording over large cortical areas with unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

During the first year of the project, the work has been focused towards the following main objectives:

i) Develop electronic technologies for brain mapping to record from large number of active sites over large areas of the cortex. We have completed the design of the BrainCom technology roadmap with several generations of neural probes based on nanomaterials where the complexity of the technology, i.e. the number of recording channels, is gradually increased. The first generation of BrainCom technology has been produced to evaluate the recording performance. We have designed and start implementing a novel multiplexing strategy using active devices aimed at reducing the number of connectors. The multiplexing strategy is supported by the development of a versatile modular application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) architecture.

ii) Advance the fundamental understanding of the link between surface and intracortical signals and dynamics in cortical circuits. BrainCom partners have developed technology and procedures to allow repeatable and standardized testing of multiple devices in freely-moving rodents. In parallel, we have developed biophysically-inspired model and high-frequency oscillation analysis of the local field potential (LFP) significantly improving state-of-the-art methods of decomposition of multiple sources in cross-laminar LFP recordings. We started applying optogenetic manipulation of cortical dynamics to decompose intra- and extracortical LFP sources. These activities have set the foundation for the preclinical investigations.

iii) Gain new fundamental understanding of the distributed brain circuits of speech and their plastic flexibility before and after lesions. BrainCom partners have started to characterize the brain dynamics underlying overt and inner speech production in humans, both at the whole brain level using non-invasive, and more locally using invasive large-scale electrophysiology. A first study with 4 epileptic patients investigating the possibility to decode overt and covert or inner speech has been completed using non-BrainCom technologies. Promising preliminary results revealed that although overt and inner speech production share some level of organizational principles, they can be characterized by anatomical and functional specificities, which can be of high relevance for the decoding of neural speech signals.

iv) Clinical testing of innovative technologies and of brain-computer interfaces for speech decoding. We have started a risk analysis of BrainCom technologies that are planned to be included in a clinical trial aiming at obtaining high-precision functional maps of cortical speech areas during awake surgery to guide tissue resection. First intracortical recordings have been obtained using non-BrainCom technologies acutely implanted in the Broca area in a patient undergoing awake surgery. An existing articulatory speech synthesizer is being tested with new types of machine learning algorithms in order to improve its performance.

v) Develop a solid ethics framework to identify and explore ethical issues linked to the use of brain implants. A collaborative research has been built on the ethical and philosophical challenges raised by a neural speech prosthesis that takes neural activity generated by covert speech; the work focuses the ethical discussion on the precise device mechanism, generating normative constraints for the continued research and development of the devices.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

Building up on BrainCom technology, we expect to lay foundation for breakthroughs in both fundamental neuroscience and clinical rehabilitation (Figure 1). The BrainCom unique high-density implant technology will shed new light on the fundamental understanding of surface cortical activity with respect to intracortical signals in small and large animal models, which will naturally lead to identifying key neural activity features to be used in BCI decoders. Further, the brain dynamics underlying overt and inner speech production will be characterized in humans which will provide further insights into speech production. BrainCom novel technologies will advance two clinical applications. First, very high-density surface recordings will improve detailed per-operative mapping of functional areas to guide tissue removal during awake surgery. The goal is to provide an alternative to the classical delineation of functional areas made using electrical stimulation of the cortical surface. Second, BrainCom technology aims at developing BCI solutions to restore continuous speech in patients unable to speak. If successful, this will open a brand new area in the field of functional rehabilitation. Ultimately, the outcome of BrainCom is expected to open up new research directions towards a better fundamental understanding of the brain activity and towards a new generation of brain-machine interfaces for neurorehabilitation.

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