Interview: Dr. Dan Rizzuto

Dr. Dan Rizzuto is the CEO and co-founder of Nia Therapeutics, a company specializing in neuromodulation therapy for memory restoration. He developed Nia's core technology as part of the DARPA Restoring memory Project in 2014 and was named the Neurotechnology Researcher of the Year in 2015. Dr. Rizzuto will serve as a panelist for the plenary session on the second day of the annual meeting, Charting the Path to Ethical Neurology.

What is Nia Therapeutics?

Nia Therapeutics is developing a closed-loop neurostimulation system to treat memory impairment. Our system senses brain activity in order to interpret and diagnose the state of the brain, and then stimulates the brain in an effort to keep each patient in the zone of good memory performance. We are first targeting patients with memory loss due to traumatic brain injury (TBI). Patients with TBI often have memory deficits as a result of their injury, and these deficits can really inhibit activities of daily living. Memory impairment can prevent patients from participating in social activities, inhibit their ability to work or go to school, and even force them to leave their occupation. Nia is developing devices that can restore memory function with the goal to help these patients return to full productivity.

How did Nia Therapeutics begin?

Mike Kahana is my cofounder at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2014, DARPA awarded Penn and Mike $24 million to undertake this massive clinical study of closed loop brain stimulation for memory enhancement. I joined Mike and led the project at Penn. Based on the proof of concept demonstration that we developed as part of this project, we’ve published multiple papers showing how our technology works — showing that you can actually improve human memory — and we’ve filed multiple patent applications based on our innovations. In 2018, based on all of the success and the progress we’ve made, I spun out full time to work on Nia Therapeutics. Since that time, Nia has been making incredible strides. We’ve raised $4 million in investor capitol, prototyped the system for our fully-implantable device that we’re going to take through the clinical trials process, and met with the FDA twice to review our plans for testing patients with memory loss due to brain injury. We’re moving full speed ahead in developing this therapy, making sure it’s safe, and testing its efficacy in our first clinical trial in patients with TBI. It’s a really exciting time. I know it’s coming from me, the CEO of Nia, but we’re really doing groundbreaking work here that’s never been done before and it’s a real honor just to be a part of this type of enterprise.

What are the possible consumer applications of Nia's technology?

That is less well-defined in Nia’s case. This is an implantable technology, so there are risks associated with the implantation procedure. At this point in time, it’s only patients who have a significant impairment that would be eligible to participate in our studies. However, as you point out, there’s consumer applicability of our technology, but before we enter into this market, the risks of the implantation procedure must come down. With that said, the risks of deep brain stimulation surgery have come down tremendously through innovations like image-guided neurosurgery, and I expect that trend to continue. As the Nia device becomes smaller and the risks become better understood and more manageable, these risks may converge to the same level of rhinoplasty. People get plastic surgery all the time, and those have an associated risk with them, but people are able to take that risk for the benefit of the procedure. And so we anticipate a similar thing happening with neurological implants. As these implants become more effective and as the risks come down, it may be possible to open it up to an aging population, or even just a young person looking to maintain an edge in their domain.

How did you become interested in neuroethics?

Being in this industry, you have to be engaged with neuroethics because the ethics of what we’re doing is so important. There’s an emerging consensus around the ethics of the use of these devices for patients with neurological disorders, but this consensus isn’t final and it changes over time. Ultimately, It's really important to engage with ethicists who can help companies and teams in academia think clearly about these issues. For instance, this project came out of a DARPA-funded effort, called ‘Restoring Active Memory.’ From the very beginning, they had neuroethicists engage with each of the teams to make sure that we were developing this technology in an ethical manner. It is so important to make sure we’re staying on the right side of history and developing these technologies in accordance with the ethics of the community.

What aspects of the annual meeting are you most excited about?

This is my first time attending the meeting — hopefully first of many — but I’m really excited to engage with the meeting attendees and the organization itself. I’m most looking forward to my panel, ‘Charting the Path to Ethical Neurology.’ Specifically, I’m grateful for the opportunity to engage with the other panelists: Mark Chevillet is doing really exciting work in non-invasive brain machine interface over at Facebook, and Anna Wexler is at the cutting edge of neuroethics at Penn. I think it will be a really fertile ground for discussion. It’s rare — unfortunately — that you have this engagement between the academic neuroethics community and industry. I’m very happy that the society is providing a venue for this to happen.

Our Digital Future: Building Networks Across Neuroscience, Technology and Ethics

The 2020 Annual Meeting of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) will convene virtually on Thursday and Friday, October 22-23, 2020. Sessions will address the many areas in which brain technologies and data concerning the brain are developed, deployed, utilized and regulated. We hope you will attend!


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