Elon Musk’s Neuralink, the secretive company developing brain-machine interfaces, showed off some of the technology it has been developing to the public for the first time. The goal is to eventually begin implanting devices in paralyzed humans, allowing them to control phones or computers.￼
Neuralink is working to develop a chip that can read, clean and amplify brain signals. The chip, along with other components, will result in a product that Neuralink calls “N1 sensor”, designed to be embedded within a human body and transmit its data wirelessly.
Neuralink intends to implant four of these sensors, three in motor areas and one in a somatosensory area. These will connect wirelessly to an external device mounted behind the ear that will hold the battery. Everything will be controlled through an iPhone application.
To implant the sensors the scientists at Neuralink hope to use a laser beam to pass through the skull rather than drill holes. The first experiments will be done with neuroscientists from Stanford University. Elon Musk has revealed that they hope to implant the first sensors into a human patient by the end of next year.
Neuralink’s technology uses flexible “threads”, which are less likely to damage the brain than the materials currently used in brain-machine interfaces. These threads also create the possibility of transferring a higher volume of data, according to a white paper credited to “Elon Musk & Neuralink. The abstract notes that the system could include “as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads”. The threads are 4 to 6 μm in width, which makes them considerably thinner than a human hair.
Neuralink’s technology, precisely because it uses very flexible materials, unlike, for example, other needle-based solutions, is difficult to implant. To combat that problem, the company has developed a neurosurgical robot capable of inserting six threads (192 electrodes) per minute [automatically]. It looks something like a cross between a microscope and a sewing machine. It can also avoid blood vessels.
The development of solutions to detect brain activity and control computers is not new. The first person with spinal cord paralysis to receive a brain implant that allowed him to control a computer cursor was Matthew Nagle. In 2006, Nagle played Pong using only his mind. Since then, paralyzed people with brain implants have also brought objects into focus and moved robotic arms in labs, as part of scientific research. The system Nagle and others have used is called BrainGate and was developed initially at Brown University.
The Neuralink system, if it works, will represent a substantial step forward compared to older technologies. BrainGate, for example, uses a series of rigid needles that allow up to 128 channels of electrodes to be used. The advantage of the Neuralink solution is both on the number of electrodes, much greater, and on the flexibility of the wires that, unlike the needles, can follow the movement of the brain in the skull.
Neuralink has yet to begin the certification process with the FDA. At the moment the company is still working with the mice to make sure that the platform is stable. But the technology, if it works, will be very promising and will allow a “high bandwidth” brain connection, implanted through robotic surgery.