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Local company looks to rewrite the book - and brain - on therapy for strokes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 24, 2012 - Think about mind-reading, and the images that pop to the fore are old-time mentalists and glitzy magicians.

But at one St. Louis area company, the magic is no stage act: At Neurolutions, a very real kind of mind-reading is happening. The company has developed a headset that offers hope to stroke victims as they try to recover from debilitating brain injuries. The headset operates a special glove that responds to the wearer’s thoughts.

“These stroke patients are able to think about opening their hand and it opens the fingers,” said Tara Butler, interim CEO of the Clayton-based concern. “They think about closing it and it closes.”

The idea of translating intention into action with anything other than our own central nervous system has long fascinated both researcher and layperson alike and, as science fictionesque as it might sound, the technology behind the magic isn’t really that new.

Electroencephalograms or EEGs have been around since the 1920s and the concept already underlies interesting tech toys sold online, such as a headset-based brainwave reader that aims to improve mental focus by allowing users to control interactive games and movies merely by thinking about it.

At Neurolutions, they are hoping to reformulate EEG impulses into movement of their glove. Founded in 2008, the company is based on technology licensed from Washington University where neurological and biomedical engineering researchers Eric Leuthardt and Dan Moran made ground-breaking discoveries that revolve around “ipsilateral signals,” weaker neural impulses on the side of the brain opposite that which controls movement for a given body part.

For instance, the right side of the brain controls the left hand but corresponding ipsilateral signals still fire on the left side during movement. That means stroke patients with damage in one hemisphere still might use mirrored activity in the other.

Butler, who is also an investment director at Ascension Health Ventures, a health-care venture fund that has backed the company, said devices with a similar aim are in existence elsewhere, but many rely on amplifying peripheral signals already sent to the muscle.

“It’s not directly altering the brain, not directly tapping into intention,” she said of competing technology. “It just says, ‘we know you are trying and we’re going to increase it.’”

Butler’s use of the phrase “altering the brain” is no accident. The primary use envisioned for Neurolutions’ glove is in therapeutic settings where researchers believe they can change the brain’s wiring to allow stroke patients to bypass damaged areas and gain fuller use of their upper extremities.

That rewiring potential, known as neuroplasticity, is an elusive one.

“The ability to consistently demonstrate neuroplasticity in these patients in a clinically meaningful way is something a lot of people have tried to do and haven’t done,” she said. “If you can do that, you can imagine something for other parts of the body.”

It all depends on something that’s become a constant refrain of neuroscience, the readily rhymed idea that nerves that fire together, wire together. By associating movement with intention, the result can be new connections and increased function.

“You are re-establishing a physiological output path,” she said. “You are not just moving a hand.”

If that’s done successfully, the ultimate goal of the Neurolutions’ product would be clients who no longer have to use it.

“With these patients, small changes make a big difference, the ability to open a bag of chips, the ability to pull up your pants or hold a toothbrush,” Butler said. “That’s what we would like to be able to give them, to be able to do it alone.”

Neurolutions’ glove may not be its only product either. The company was originally conceived based on the concept of electrocorticography (ECoG), a new and improved methodology in which a dime-sized implant placed inside the cranium would be able to read signals directly off the brain’s outer layer, known as the dura. The company’s work in that field is based on research by Gerwin Schalk of the Wadsworth Center in New York.

Butler said that electrocorticographic technology would create far greater detail than the present EEG platform, which relies on a binary paradigm in which a hand can be open or closed but there are no subtleties of movement.

“What we would hope to do is to give a quad or spinal cord injured patient the movement of five fingers in three-dimensional space,” she added. “We have the ability to do that with the ECoG platform but it takes a longer development cycle and more capital -- and right now is a very difficult time to raise that,” she said.

Not that it’s been impossible. Neurolutions has been attracting some attention of late. The company was one of three to recently receive a cash infusion from the Arch Angels which poured $100,000 into the enterprise’s coffers. St. Louis’ BioGenerator was an early investor as well, participating in the medtech venture’s initial round of funding.

Pursuing the ECoG technology remains a future goal. Meanwhile, the present EEG-based idea could be ready much sooner, perhaps in 18-24 months.

“We’re building (a glove) that is extremely easy to put on, lightweight and manufactured at a relatively low price point so you could take this product and move it into multiple markets,” she said.