Blackrock Neurotech is a Utah-based company that creates brain-computer interfaces and other biomechanical devices. Devices like these can be used to restore a person’s speech, hearing, feeling or movement.
UPR’s Casey Taylor spoke with the company's co-founder, Florian Solzbacher, to learn about a new device the company is creating to help control jet lag and circadian rhythms.
TAYLOR: Who is Blackrock Microsystems and what is this ADAPTER and NTRAIN device that you are currently working on?
SOLZBACHER: So, BlackRock Microsystems and BlackRock neurotech is a company that is providing implantable devices. On the one hand, for the neuroscience research market. For those researchers and clinicians that try to understand these diseases and developing treatments.
We are also developing and providing clinical products that are actually used in day-to-day care. And what we're often mostly known for is the work that is done in brain-computer interfaces. Where we've demonstrated over years now in a growing number of patients as sort of the only company that we have so far with this type of an implant, that we can restore function, movements, speech, hearing, etc. And give that back to patients influencing, sensory feedback, a feeling of touch, etc, which is really wonderful to be in that position.
The specific project that you were referring to, the ADAPTER and NTRAIN program, is a program in collaboration with a number of partners, including Northwestern University, to try and control or modulate the body chemistry that controls your jetlag, and your sleeping patterns.
TAYLOR: So how does the ADAPTER work? How does the so-called “living pharmacy” counteract, or help to improve the circadian rhythm. What is it producing inside the body that helps to change that?
SOLZBACHER: So what it's sort of really trying to do when we're trying to change the sleep and wake cycles, is to deliver specific peptides on demand directly into the bloodstream. And so you have a small device that will contain a reservoir of those peptides. And potentially have the option to even generate those out of engineered cells, that when they're exposed to light, generate precisely those of the peptides that you need.
So, that's why that's called a living pharmacy. Because you don't really need a reservoir. You essentially generate that on demand. And so that is one of the key skills that Blackrock is bringing to the table and this with our experience in building chronically implantable devices. How to make them be as biocompatible as possible, how to make them last as long as possible as a device, and then to understand all the system engineering around it. Because people often like to simplify these problems as one little widget that magically like a silver bullet solves all the problems. And it never is.
TAYLOR: So I’m curious if there are any ethical implications for this research and this device. And if it were to become public and commercial what would be the concerns involving this device?
SOLZBACHER: There always are. Whenever, actually, for every medication, every treatment, but in particular, when you have implants, you always need to, first of all, consider the safety of people, but then you need to think about the long-term implications. And that goes beyond the specific impact on a target population.
So, what may not be known to many of the listeners is that when this type of research has been done, in almost all projects, that projects from DARPA, NIH, and others are triggering there are very stringent requirements in terms of ethical oversight. For those projects, now beyond that, as a company, you see, the driving point, and the motivation, for me personally, has been for the last 30 years to help people, to give function back to people that have lost it. But I'm very well aware of the fact that obviously, not right now.
But as these things become better and have more capabilities, there could be people that may be interested in these types of devices that are fully able-bodied, that are not impacted, they don't really need it, they may just want it. And that is why on the Blackrock side, we've at the onset because we didn't want to make the mistake that the social media have done, where they took off and thought, “What a great idea." And then 10 years into it, people go scratching their heads and say, "Oh, darn, we should have probably thought about that." There are all these implications that didn't occur to people. I wanted to make sure, and you know that Mark is my co-founder and our board, that we do not fall into that trap.
TAYLOR: Thank you so much, Florian. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to interview you and talk more about BlackRock and the things you are working with. Honestly, thank you so much.
SOLZBACHER: Thank you so much.