Israeli prize for brain research

From Start-up Nation to ‘Brain Nation’ – with a million-dollar prize

A combination of the technologies at which Israel is already expert will allow researchers to learn the secrets of the last, unexplored frontier in the human body

By David Shamah September 12, 2012,Times of Israel


Screenshot from an IBT video (photo credit: Courtesy)

Screenshot from an IBT video (photo credit: Courtesy)

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The idea that we use only 10% or 20% of our brains is a myth, scientists say; we actually use most of it. What we don’t know too much about is how it works — how each part of the brain does what it does, how it interacts with the other parts of the brain, as well as the rest of the body, and why things go wrong, causing individuals to lose their ability to function normally, due to brain damage and diseases.

But an Israeli organization, aptly named Israel Brain Technologies (IBT), intends to discover the secrets of the brain — and is offering a bounty of $1 million to anyone who can come up with a breakthrough brain technology, one that will make life better for everyone. Aptly named the Global B.R.A.I.N. (Breakthrough Research And Innovation in Neurotechnology) Prize, the award will be decided upon by a panel of judges who will evaluate the proposed innovations for their soundness, practicality, innovation — and vision, said Dr. Rafi Gidron, founder and chairman of IBT.

“The next wave of technology development is going to be brain technology — understanding how it operates, building devices that will interface with the brain, and understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” Gidron told The Times of Israel. “We believe that Israel has all the ingredients needed to make great strides in this industry — signal processing, computing, medical devices, networking, video, and much more. Dealing with the brain is an interdisciplinary affair, because so many technologies are involved in what the brain controls and is capable of.”  

One of IBT’s aims is to build devices that will interact with the brain, providing a benefit to an individual using Israeli-bred brain technology. Already there are examples of brain-machine interaction, said Gidron: Over 200,000 people around the world have a “bionic ear,” properly known as a cochlear implant (CI), which provides profoundly deaf people with the ability to “hear” electronically; and new technology that allows Parkinson’s patients to receive “deep brain stimulation,” which enables them to once again control their bodies.

Gidron sees bionic hearts, artificial eyes, direct brain downloads, and more. “The B.R.A.I.N. Prize will bring together the best minds across geographic boundaries to create the next generation of brain-related innovation, from Brain Machine Interface to Brain Inspired Computing, to urgently needed solutions for brain disease,” said Gidron. “It’s a global brain- gain. Our aim is to open minds… quite literally.”

That is what the B.R.A.I.N. prize is all about, said Gidron. Winners could help diagnose and treat neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism, and help unleash our intellectual power exponentially. Likewise, they could create the next cutting-edge device that will alter our day-to-day lives for the better. Winners will be chosen by a jury composed of internationally recognized leaders in science, technology and industry. The million-dollar prize will support further development of their technological breakthrough, by accelerating the success of their emerging technologies.

Although it sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky, Gidron has both feet firmly planted on the ground. Currently an investor, Gidron was the founder and co-CEO of Chromatis, which was sold to Lucent for $4.5 billion 12 years ago.

The vision for brain technology research, said Gidron, comes from President Shimon Peres, whom Gidron calls “a real visionary, a man who foresaw and helped lead the Israeli revolution in areas like biotech, nanotech and aviation, among others.” Introducing IBT and the B.R.A.I.N. Prize at the annual conference of the High-Tech Industry Association (HTIA) Wednesday in Jerusalem, Peres said that “there is no doubt that brain research in the next decade will revolutionize our lives and impact such major domains as medicine, education, computing, and the human mind, to name but some.

“Israel is well positioned to assume a leadership role in the emerging neurotechnology industry that promises to make the world a better place.” The brain, Peres said, “has allowed us to create artificial brains, but not to explore our own brains. We have to learn more about ourselves, about how we make our choices in life.”

There are many existing Israeli companies that Gidron sees contributing to “brain tech.” One of them, for example, is BrainsGate, which has developed a device — used on millions of stroke victims around the world – that enhances blood flow to a patient’s brain for up to 24 hours. BrainsGate’s therapy consists of a miniature electrode implanted through the roof of the mouth in a local anesthesia procedure comparable to dental treatment. The implant stimulates a nervous center, which increases cerebral blood flow.

Israel is also the home of one of the world’s biggest suppliers of neurotechnology devices, Alpha-Omega. And ElMinda’s Brain Network Activations is already being utilized by leading pharmaceutical companies for monitoring the effects of their drugs on the brain as an integral part of their drug-development programs.

Gidron expects many more companies working in this space to emerge in the coming years. “A report by analysts at McKinsey & Company shows that Israel is uniquely positioned to develop leadership in Brain Machine Interface (BMI) and therapeutic neuro-stimulation devices for treating a wide variety of brain disorders. This research will have all sorts of implications for daily life in the future,” said Gidron. “The brain is more powerful than any supercomputer and uses less energy than a 20-watt light bulb. We, indeed, have a great deal to learn from it.”

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