Brain Health,
Sci + Society,

#194: Brain Implants – Medical and Beyond with Dr. Brett Wingeier

August 18, 2017

“It’s not quite as crazy as it sounds.”

That’s how Brett Wingeier describes his work as the Principal Biomedical Engineer with NeuroPace, the company where he spent over a decade designing and ultimately winning FDA approval for an implantable medical device that sits inside the skull of epilepsy patients, patiently waiting for the warning signs of an “electrical storm in the brain” — the neurological underpinnings of an epileptic seizure — and the countering the signal.

Dr. Wingeier describes his invention as “like a defibrillator for the brain,” with the significant difference that his is a small wafer of platinum resting on the inside of a living human skull.  Technically, it’s not on the inside of the skull itself, but an artificial trapdoor cut into the skull by surgeons specifically to gain entry for the NeuroPace device.  When all goes as planned, the NeuroPace defuses seizures without the patient even knowing anything has happened.

Wingeier talks about his work with realism of someone who knows he’ll have to back up claims with working prototypes, but also the enthusiasm of a sci-fi fanboy who truly sees “human potential as unlimited.”

Inside the skull – or outside.  I do both.

Since completing his work at NeuroPace — which is now operating inside thousands of real people’s heads — Wingeier went on to co-found Halo Neuroscience with business partner Dr. Daniel Chao (Smart Drug Smarts Episode #183).  They are now moving their work from inside the skull to outside, focusing on transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS), which influences the firing potential of neurons by the application of electrical potential across the skull.  In 2016, they released their first consumer product, the Halo Sport. 

Wingeier sees the potential growth of the brain-tech industry as essentially unlimited.  If there are limits, we can’t see them yet from where we are at present.  He speaks of decades-worth of lab bound technical advances that haven’t yet made it out into medical therapy, much less consumer products.  He likens the present state of brain-tech to something like the nascent Internet before it went mainstream, and was just a “toy technology” for military and academic research.

When the general public got its hands on the Internet and started to tinker with how it could be used, he reminds us, that is when it exploded into a transformative technology.

Will the next big tech transformation be turning our own brains into innovation platforms?

Coming from some people, a claim like this would sound fanciful.  Coming from the technical lead and co-founder of two major neurotech companies, it’s hard not to take the question seriously.  Dr. Wingeier’s work reminds us: We may be cracking skulls, but we’ve barely cracked the surface.

Listen to Episode #194 for a mind-expanding interview with a true pioneer in brain-tech.

Show Notes
  • 00:00:22

    Episode Introduction: Medical and Beyond with Dr. Brett Wingeier

  • 00:01:47

    This Week in Neuroscience: Exciting Findings For Concussions

  • 00:05:01

    Smarts Drug Smarts News + Updates

  • 00:06:30

    Guest Introduction: Dr. Brett Wingeier

  • 00:07:58

    Interview Begins

  • 00:09:17

    Why Dr. Wingeier Chose to Look Into Epilepsy

  • 00:12:16

    How The Device Is Implanted in Epileptic Patients

  • 00:13:55

    The Different Types of Seizures

  • 00:15:44

    The Amount of the Brain the Implant Impacts

  • 00:18:38

    The Next Breakthroughs in Brain Interfaces

  • 00:22:35

    The Potential Future of Brain Augmentation

  • 00:24:33

    Augmentation Inside Skull vs. Outside Skull

  • 00:26:43

    Which is Better for the Brain: Devices vs. Drugs

  • 00:29:00

    How Big of a Challenge Brain Controlled Tools?

  • 00:31:00

    What These Brain Implants Could Mean For Communication

  • 00:33:12

    Why Dr. Wingeier Believes Acceptance of Augmentation Will Happen

  • 00:36:01

    Should We Prepare Real Estate In Our Brain For Future Augmentations?

  • 00:38:24

    Expensive Tissue Hypothesis

  • 00:39:40

    Interview Wrap-Up

  • 00:40:51

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Induced Hallucinations

  • 00:43:49

    Episode Wrap-Up

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