Prof Noel O’Connor, CEO of Insight, believes now is the time for Ireland to establish a brain project and develop a strategy for this burgeoning sector.
The EU Human Brain Project. The US Brain Initiative. The China Brain Project. The Korea Brain Initiative. Japan Brain. The Canadian Brain Research Strategy. Why are so many economies investing so heavily in neurotechnology?
Neurotechnologies are devices that interact with the nervous system. They are placed on the outside or the inside of the brain to record or stimulate activity.
The worldwide market for neurotechnology products is projected to reach to $13.3bn this year. Researchers in the field are predicting that demand for devices that connect directly with our brains will, in 20 years, mirror demand for smartphones today.
These devices will be used to treat disease, to support rehabilitation and to better understand our nervous systems. They will also find their way into a range of consumer applications. Human-machine interaction is about to get a lot more intimate.
Non-invasive neurotechnology is in use already – restoring lost function or enhancing motor abilities, communication, perception, attention, mood, situational awareness, memory, problem-solving and decision-making.
In the US, transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has FDA approval for use in treating depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Brain-to-brain communication using non-invasive neurotechnology has been trialled. Telepathy, in other words.
As the technology grows, so too will demand for devices that improve attention, memory, learning, mood and communication. Ageing population trends will also drive demand for solutions to age-related neurodegenerative disorders.
Ireland needs its own brain project
Does Ireland have the brainpower to establish its own brain project? We do and we must.
The optimal approach is to establish an all-island brain project. We have the talent to move fast. We have the expertise to establish Ireland as a location to plan, research, develop, trial, regulate and deliver neurotechnology solutions.
Ulster University’s Intelligent Systems Research Centre and the Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics – based out of University College Dublin, University College Cork, Dublin City University and the University of Galway – together provide a ready-poured foundation.
An all-island brain project for Ireland could draw from the expertise of 30 investigators from every university on the island of Ireland, while working closely with our hospitals and clinical experts. These investigators bring expertise from fundamental research right through to market delivery.
It’s an initiative waiting to happen.
There are so many facets to a neurotechnology ecosystem that ultimately translate to enterprise and make us attractive to inward investment. After the science bit comes the commercial framework to bring these technologies to market.
We need, and have, health economists and investors to promote the development of a neurotechnology accelerator. We can use our venture capital networks to assess the feasibility of establishing a dedicated neurotechnology equity fund to complete the ecosystem.
The future of neurotechnology
Neurotechnology is at an early stage but the sector is already following the law of accelerating returns, with prices reducing, safety and efficacy increasing and early adoption taking hold as more and more use cases being established.
Ireland as an island needs to develop its own strategy of how to fund, research, regulate and engage globally in this burgeoning sector.
The regulation part is key. These technologies are coming and will enter the Irish market whether we have a stake in their development or not. There are enormous safety, privacy and ethical considerations when it comes to the use of devices that collect and store brain data.
An all-island brain initiative allows us to get ahead of these issues at the development stage, forming and cementing our own regulations and guardrails for users of this technology in Ireland.
It is critical that Ireland develops its own views on neurotechnology and the wider implications for deployment, ethically, socially and legally.
A planned brain initiative would bring together Ireland’s specialists in medical devices, clinical investigations, quality auditing and surveillance, trial registration, notified body oversight, medical device certification and neuroethicists to define how Ireland should regulate neurotechnology.
The public, most importantly, must have a voice. We should not be rule takers in such a seismic technological development as widespread, commercialised brain-computer interfaces.
Like all good ideas, it really is a no-brainer. But also like good ideas, there is a window of opportunity and the time to act is now.
Prof Noel O’Connor is CEO of Insight, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for data analytics. He is full professor in the School of Electronic Engineering at Dublin City University.
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