For several years, we’ve broadened our focus at SynBioBeta to include the neurotech field. This may have been surprising to you. After all, it’s not always obvious how genetic engineering relates to brain-computer interfaces.
I sat down with Amy Kruse, General Partner and Chief Investment Officer at Satori Neuro, to better understand the synbio-neurotech connection and explore what these two fields could create together. Our conversation ended up becoming one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done. We jumped feet-first into synbio, and I found myself swept off into neurotech for mental health, the opportunities and ethical pitfalls of AI, the intersection of computing, psilocybin, and next-generation biologics, and so much more. So come, dive in with me, and see where the intersection of synbio and neurotech can take us.
Neurotech is typically thought of as a computing field or even as med-tech. But our brains aren’t hardware; they’re wetware. At its core, neurotech is the application of computing and engineering principles on a living system, i.e., us. In many ways, this is the definition of synbio. It’s impossible to interact with the brain without considering biology.
For Kruse, significant advances in biology and computing are creating new synergies. “We’re learning how to modulate the nervous system [in different ways],” says Kruse. “The gut-brain axis, [therapeutic] molecules, plant medicine, and electricity, it's a very big space. We haven't even begun to explore how all these pieces combine.”
Kruse has observed a sort of “return to nature” in recent years. Computing has made neurotech possible, but it hasn’t found all the solutions. Now, many scientists are looking to functions and systems that already exist in nature in order to develop novel tools for treating neurological disease. “There's so much for nature to teach us,” she explains. “There's so much to amplify and build upon.”
Neurotech has advanced significantly even in the few years SynBioBeta has been following the field. Patients who are trapped in their own bodies by accidents or illnesses have been able to communicate again via computer interfaces or move their limbs with the aid of brain implants. Most recently, a patient with severe Parkinson’s regained control of his limbs and can now enjoy the freedom of a 6 km walk.
“In terms of invasive brain-computer interfaces [BCIs], I think we’re at the moment in the field where everything is coming together,” says Kruse. Indeed, a number of potential treatments are moving through clinical trials, and Kruse expects to see prescribed BCIs in patients in the very near future.
But Kruse is also clear that while BCIs can help patients mitigate many of their symptoms, these devices are not cures. Patients with Parkinson’s or other degenerative conditions will still be affected by the underlying disease. Yet even in this inevitable decline (or inevitable until other therapeutic options are developed), Kruse sees opportunities for neurotech to improve patients' lives.
“Imagine somebody who has a neurodegenerative disorder. It’s progressive, right? There is a point in time when maybe they can still speak or still use eye movements. What if, at that point, we could build up their [AI] language model and capture their speech?” Kruse says, to my astonishment. The concept seems obvious now, but I had never considered this application of AI before. Kruse explains that if we can capture the sound of a person’s voice, their data, and how they converse, we could provide a potentially easier transition for patients even as they lose the abilities they once had.
AI is a powerful tool, and we know we can’t fully grasp how much it will impact our lives. In this case of neurodegenerative decline, AI plus neurotech could help patients and families adapt to painful realities. But Kruse also acknowledges the dystopic “Black Mirror-esqe” concept of capturing a person’s voice and memories with AII. For good or ill, we would be creating digital echoes of loved ones that could endure long after that person dies. As this field progresses and AIs become more powerful, we will need to grapple with the ethical and societal questions of a preserved digital life after physical death.
Neurodegenerative diseases aren’t the only conditions that can affect the brain, and Kruse is excited about the growing research and investment into neurotech for mental health.
Many believe (as do I) that the de-stigmatization of mental health was an unexpected benefit of COVID-19. The growing social conversation around mental health, the re-emergence of psilocybin, and new understandings of how the gut microbiome impacts the brain give innovators a whole new set of tools.
While it’s true that small molecules like SSRIs can significantly improve symptoms of conditions like depression, these drugs are not without side effects. Kruse emphasizes that, like any disease, mental health therapies are not a “one-size-fits-all.” Many patients have treatment-resistant depression and need new solutions. Companies are already working to address mental concerns through gut microbiome modulation or to produce psilocybin compounds in microbes for GMP manufacturing. In addition to these bio-based approaches, Kruse also highlights the advances in electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
ECT has a troubled history in the minds of the public, and not without reason. Applying energy to the brain somehow resets it, a procedure that can be highly effective for severe depression. But ECT was also abused in asylums in the first half of the last century. When applied correctly, however, electricity can be a powerful aid to the brain.
“The Greeks were the first to use electronic medicine,” Kruse explains. “They would place torpedo fish on the heads of individuals with headaches and would use electric fish as a treatment.” (Dear reader, this definitely became my new fun fact for parties.) Happily, we’ve come a long way since the days of Hellenistic medicine and the ECT of the 1940s and ’50s. Today’s methods rely on advanced brain maps and are much more precise.
Kruse likens the brain to a computer. But rather than rebooting the entire brain with traditional ECT, we can now reboot isolated networks with techniques like low-intensity focused ultrasound and transcranial magnetic stimulation. “Sometimes [your] RAM is slowing, and you just need to force-quit one program,” says Kruse, analogizing a region of decreased brain activity to glitchy software. “We’re getting into where we have the mapping tools that allow us to do that.”
As our conversation ended, I asked Kruse what she thought of using engineering molecules like antibodies to deliver nanobots through the blood-brain barrier to target specific synapses. “It’s an interesting question,” says Kruse. “It relates to what we’ve been talking about—interfacing with the brain.” Kruse is already speaking with several companies about using nanobots to target brain tumors or to explore ways to make the blood-brain barrier more permeable. “I think we're going to be in a land of interfacing with the brain from the inside, and that will be another big game changer.” Kruse expects the first innovations to be in oncology, where such targeting is urgently needed. “But we're not too far away from delivering molecules or even drugs specifically to brain regions through uncaging molecules at specific locations.”
For Kruse, the entire field of neurological treatment is a “yes, and,” that is, it’s a continuous progression of one advance building on the next and the next. Electric fish alone don’t cure disease. Neither do small molecules, psilocybin, BCIs, or modulated gut microbiomes. But by putting all these pieces together, we have a far better chance of addressing some of the most medically complex and emotionally painful conditions known to humans.
This article of Kruse’s insights only previews her latest collaboration with SynBioBeta. Kruse has recently accepted the role of Neurotech Track Chair at SynBioBeta’s 2024 Global Synthetic Biology Conference. Be sure to join us in San Jose next May 6-9—there’s so much more to explore!