Researchers preparing a new type of brain-stimulation therapy for clinical use
The ERC-funded ConnectToBrain project (2019–2025) aims to significantly improve brain stimulation. Currently, stimulation treatment involves activating single sites in the brain with magnetic pulses, one at a time, in sequences running into the thousands. The new technology implemented by ConnectToBrain, called multi-locus transcranial magnetic stimulation (mTMS), will be able to alternate stimulation between different cortical locations at millisecond-level intervals.
A new project funded by Business Finland (2020–2022) will explore ways to commercialise the new mTMS technology in order to make it more widely available for research and clinical use. This way, a large number of patients with, e.g., depression, chronic pain, or stroke can benefit from the new technology.
‘The goal is the commercial distribution of the device after the project. In medical technology, it usually takes a lot of time to go from prototype to regulatory-agency-approved and commercially viable clinical devices. Thus, the expansion of therapeutic use will begin probably only in the second half of the decade,’ Professor Risto Ilmoniemi said.
The two-year project is led by Dr. Dubravko Kicic, EMBA, who has extensive experience in medical technologies, including his PhD thesis (2009) on magnetic stimulation and product management work at Elekta Neuromag.
‘The safety and reliability of the device is not enough; it must also comply with official regulations and standards,’ Kicic said.
There are different development versions, but the ConnectToBrain project eventually aims to make a device covering the entire head with 50 coils.
"The problem with a device of this magnitude is its price, which is estimated at about two million euros. A balance needs to be struck between the complexity, price, and benefits of the new device. A five-coil device could be an attractive option for commercialisation, as its price could be only a small fraction of a larger device,’ said Risto Ilmoniemi.
Where the 50-coil device does not need to be moved, the five-coil device covers only an area of 10 cm2 of the cerebral cortex at a time, and stimulation thus requires moving the coil.
“The biggest challenge with moving the device is the time it takes because activity in the brain happens very fast. Software development is also needed so that the device is as easy to use as possible,’ Academy Researcher Jaakko Nieminen said. Since finishing his PhD in hybrid brain imaging technology in 2012, he has focused on the development of the mTMS technology. A path from research to device commercialisation is finally opening up.
One of the challenges of the project is to find the right experts for a technology that does not yet exist. Most device manufacturers are not ready to make a new, much more complex device than the current ones.
‘We are confident that we will be able to meet these challenges,’ said Dubravko Kicic.
Aalto University's Department of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering has been very successful in Business Finland's commercialisation projects. There are currently 7 ongoing projects at the department, and two projects have already been completed.