Neuralink reveals the “Fitbit for your brain”

Elon Musk’s Neuralink showcases working implanted brain computer and promises future health benefits.

Elon Musk company Neuralink has been researching how directly interfacing with the brain could be used as therapy for chronic and debilitating medical conditions, as well as exploring how technological augmentation could expand and develop the capabilities of the human brain.

Longevity.Technology: Neuralink have been decidedly cagey about their progress, despite having $158m, in funding, $100m of which comes from Musk himself [1]. Tonight’s live broadcast featured misbehaving pigs (I’m looking at you here, Gertrude!) and a glimpse of the future of robotic surgery, but Elon Musk continued to operate at his self-proclaimed “speed of thought” pushing the boundaries between brains and technology.

Prior to today’s update, the last real news was in July last year, when they announced they were developing a “sewing machine-like” device that could implant incredibly thin (4 to 6 μm) threads in the brain. The company also demonstrated a system that read information from a lab rat via 1,500 electrodes and revealed they planned to start experiments with humans in 2020 [2].

Images courtesy of Neuralink

So, when Elon Musk tweeted that he was preparing to show a working “V2” of the device that was demonstrated last year, showing “neurons firing in real time. The matrix in the matrix,” Twitter went crazy.

Neuralink’s “neural lace” is designed to be surgically connected to a human brain; this would allow the user to interface directly with a computer without the need for traditional input methods (keyboards, mice, trackpads, &c). Of course, wires that carry electrical signals heat up and implanting them directly in a brain is incredibly invasive, two enormous obstacles that Neuralink will need to overcome.

“Gertie was a little more engaged in the run through a few minutes before the live stream. Science!”  Video Courtesy of Neuralink

Tonight Elon Musk’s live broadcast [3] demonstrated his “fitbit in your skull”, a tiny device that is implanted in the skull with robotic surgery. Musk revealed that Neuralink has been implanting pigs with the V0.9 device that is 22.5 millimetres across and 8 millimetres thick. The hardware contains a computing chip with 1024 channels with electrodes that pick up brain activity and communicate directly with brain cells. The chipset uses Bluetooth to wirelessly transmit and receive signals from a computer. Each of the 1024 electrodes can affect ten thousand neurons, meaning millions of neurons can be triggered. It uses different currents for different areas of the brain, and will be able to be sewn deeper within the brain, meaning it will be functionality beyond the upper cortex and be able to affect processes such as motor function, addiction and depression.

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The device, which is removable without side-effects, has a day-long battery life (recharged inductively like a smartphone) and will, Musk claims, be able to alert the user to warn of imminent and long-term health issues such as possible strokes, as well as correctly neuron-related blindness, paralysis, &c. The implant will, Musk said, be able to overcome tetraplegia and paraplegia enabling even people who have suffered complete spinal cord severance to walk again.

neuralink
Images courtesy of Neuralink

Work is ongoing to to shrink the device, while also improving its computing power. Musk claims the procedure, which does not require general anaesthesia and and takes less than an hour, will be similar to getting Lasik vision surgery, with patients going home the same day. Musk said he hopes that eventually the device will be commonplace, delivering music and content, instead of just a medical treatment.

Images courtesy of Neuralink

Musk told an enthusiastic socially-distanced studio audience (and the 100k online viewers) that Neuralink had received an FDA Breakthrough Designation in July and that they are preparing for the first human implantation soon, pending approvals and additional safety testing.

There is also potential, according to Musk, for saving and replaying memories, something that could be incredibly important in treating age-related dementia. “The future’s going to be weird,” said Musk – the journey there is certainly going to be exciting!

[1] https://pulse2.com/elon-musk-neuralink-unveils-brain-implant-plan/
[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/16/technology/neuralink-elon-musk.html
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVvmgjBL74w

First Longevity
Eleanor Garth
Deputy Editor Now a science and medicine journalist, Eleanor worked as a consultant for university spin-out companies and provided research support at Imperial College London and various London hospitals in a former life.
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