“People on the ground don’t care about the political situation between the UK and Russia,” says Alesya Chichinkina, PR director of Russian tech firm NeuroChat.

“Everyone has these barriers in their heads but they are not the reality. The politics is just for the politicians.”

We’re chatting midway through her enthusiastic demonstration of NeuroChat’s impressive communication system. Certainly here at the the NEC in Birmingham, there is no hint of the frosty British/Russian relationship.

NeuroChat is one of several Russian parties showing off their wares at a large exhibition stand at the European Neuro Convention.

The Russian delegation is eager to work with neuro-rehab professionals, patients and care providers in the UK.

NeuroChat enables users to type messages with their mind without any movement or speech. Target users include those with MS, motor neurone disease and brain and spinal injuries.

The headset looks like a sleek cross between a GoPro action camera and a call centre operator’s headset. It comes neatly presented in branded packaging straight from style book of Apple.

Its backstory, as told by Alesya, is perhaps a microcosm of Russia’s growing prowess in neurotechnology for people with disabilities. Investment, sophisticated science and a growing awareness of the power of rehabilitation are conspiring to put Russia at the forefront of the development of new technologies for people with brain and  spinal conditions.

“Russia was always famous for our mathematics and software developers. We have a lot of good software engineers and we also started to build really good hardware.

“NeuroChat started in 2016 as a project for people with severe speech and movement disabilities, perhaps after stroke or neural trauma. We received about £1.8m in investment, about 40 per cent from the government and the rest privately.

“Our scientific supervisor is the world-famous Alexander Kaplan, head of the laboratory of neural interfaces at Moscow State University. So the science was perfect in the project from the very beginning.

“The common problem with this type of product, however, is that scientists generally struggle to make products for the market. They have no commercial thinking.

“So the bigger challenge with NeuroChat was not how we are able to type with the power of thought; instead it was about building the product as a communicator for people with disabilities.”

The technology converts brainwaves into on-screen and electronically verbalised text. A special gel is applied to the user’s head, before the headset is put on. A five to 10-minute “calibration process” follows, in which the user is urged to concentrate on certain letters or words highlighted on screen.

The system, which runs for eight hours on one charge, gauges the brain’s reaction to each letter or word rather than tracking eye movements, as is increasingly common in rehab technology.

Alesya says: “A really important aspect is the integration with social networks and messengers. People who may have returned home from hospital after a stroke, for example, of course need to be able to communicate with their family and tell them what they want. But they must also reconnect with society. A big part of the rehabilitation process is socialising, which is why we’re putting users online.”

Users can converse on messenger platforms, via SMS or on social networks; although Facebook is not yet available as it prohibits certain types of digital integration. Other additions have been shaped by the findings of patient surveys.

“We found that users really wanted a journal function, which would enable them to make notes and keep a diary. This was super easy to do but the people working in the laboratories had no idea this is what people with disabilities wanted until they asked them.”

A news feed which keeps users updated on the latest happenings of the day was also added.  The next stage is to continue developing the system’s integration with other devices and apps, including smart home appliances.

“NeuroChat won’t just be a communication device, it will also be a remote controller.”

English is one of several compatible languages, with NeuroChat now looking to establish a foothold in the UK and other markets.

“We are interested in distribution and selling partners in the UK. In Russia we work with private clients and hospitals to teach them how to use the system and we can’t do this for UK users from Moscow so we need people here to work with us.”

Currently the system is used by around 150 patients in Russian rehab centres and 100 home-based users. Efforts to raise funds for a large-scale study into the rehabilitative effect of the technology are now underway.

NeuroChat’s progress has been aided by its involvement in the Neuronet Industry Union. This is a non-commercial partnership uniting developers, manufacturers and researchers across Russia covering neuroscience and neurotechnology.

Key areas of interest include AI, augmented reality, robotics and virtual reality, with involved partners spanning science labs, corporations and clinical settings.

It encourages collaboration across various defined market segments such as ‘neuroassistance’, ‘neuroeducation’. ‘neuromarketing’ and ‘neuroentertainment’.

The overarching aim is to drive the development of neuronet technology itself – which it defines as the ‘next generation of information exchange’. The Russian government is on board too.

A ‘neuronet roadmap’ has been approved by the Presidium of the Presidential Council for Economic Modernisation and Innovative Development of Russia. It sets out growth plans for the neuronet market, with Russian firms leading the way.

Activities supported by Neuronet include the development of new products and services, advanced training of specialists in using neuronet technology and providing new education, health and social innovations.

Dmitriy Orlov, (pictured left) Neuronet’s partnership relationship manager, is here at the NEC and keen to spread the word about the impending neuronet revolution.

“This is the big market of the future and we need to get many technologies, scientific researchers and businesses involved. This is just the beginning. Our members want to export to other countries and think internationally because this will affect societies the world over – and the UK is a really important market.”

Another member of Neuronet represented in Birmingham is Neurobotics, which makes equipment for “scientific research in neuroscience, physiology and behaviour”.

It has a range of robotic products and also develops anthropomorphic robots – including frighteningly realistic versions of Alan Turing and the Russian poet A.S. Pushkin.

At the NEC, the Moscow-based company is showing delegates products covering various fields including TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), FES (functional electronic stimulation) and a system used to teach patients about motor imagery. The headline technology, however, is its home-based stroke rehab invention.

The Neurobotics Neurotrainer  brings together robotics, electromyography (EMG) signalling and motor imagery. Users place their hand in a robotic glove, while a screen shows a virtual rendering of their hand.

The patient’s brain activity in mimicking movements, such as a five-fingered grab, triggers the glove to mechanically support the movement.

CEO Vladimir Konishev (pictured above) says: “Here in the UK, as in Russia, it is very costly for society to offer stroke survivors months of rehabilitation. If a patient trains for one hour a day for a month, for example, they may improve and regain some motor functions. A therapist might only be able to conduct around eight of these [one-to-one] sessions per day, however. Meanwhile, stroke survival rates are increasing, meaning more people need rehabilitation.

“It’s very hard to provide rehabilitation at home. We are trying to provide a new direction in home-based stroke rehabilitation, using robotics to replace human therapists.

“You don’t need to stay in hospital to take a pill, so our question is why do you need to do rehabilitation in hospital? You can do it at home, where it’s more comfortable and less costly to society.”

While neuro-technology can be prohibitively expensive for patients, Neurobotics is hoping to spread access to its device via a rental model. “When the patient is in hospital we can train them about motor imagery and when they go home, they can rent this for around 100 Euros per day,” says Vladimir.

The Neurotrainer is not currently available commercially – but work is underway to gain the appropriate certifications and it is expected to launch soon.

“We’ll have this as a commercial product next year when we return to this exhibition. We need to build a network of partners in the UK. I would like to see the opinion of end users and practitioners and to [introduce it] to rehabilitation hospitals and businesses”.