Neuralink is a startup founded in 2016 by Elon Musk working on brain-machine interfaces, which can be defined as a direct liaison brain-computer enabling paralyzed people to perform daily life tasks without moving muscles and peripheral nerves. Next year, this dream may come true as its creator announced Neuralink would start implanting its brain chips in humans’ brains.
Musk has a history of overpromising and under-delivering on project timelines. Neuralink’s narrative makes no exception: in 2019, Tesla’s boss said that Neuralink hoped to begin human testing by the end of 2020. So what makes this announcement more credible than the previous one? In the meantime, lots of progress has been made.
At this stage, Neuralink has only created prototypes on pigs. The last one was presented in late August 2020 in a live video: the shown implant was 23 millimeters wide and 8 millimeters thick. Inserted under the skull, a few millimeters deep inside the brain, it is composed of 1024 extremely thin threads. The device can be reloaded daily by induction. These threads detect the activity of the neurons or emit electrical signals in order to stimulate them. Their activity can be recorded by means of a mobile phone application. The implant is connected to a smartphone thanks to a Bluetooth Low Energy connection.
This new version of the Neuralink prototype (called N1 link) enables to read pigs’ brain activity when they move or sniff food in a more discreet way than the previous brain implant developed by Neuralink, as well as offering more advanced functionality. The demonstration of this prototype was performed on a pig called Gertrude, and it was possible to read and predict Gertrude’s brain activity related to its legs’ muscles. Two other pigs were also present to perform the experience correctly: Joyce, which was not given any implants, and Dorothy, which had one implant for a two-month period before it was withdrawn from its brain. Other pigs were given several implants simultaneously, connected to different parts of their brains. According to Musk, the aim was to show that animals are “happy and in good health,” no matter how many implants they have had or if they were given any, which seemed to be the case. That being said, this demonstration does not prove in itself that the operation is without danger. Brain damage sometimes has inner consequences on human beings (difficulties to talk, mood change, disappearance of some skills, loss of sensation), and it is all the more difficult to notice on a pig.
This implant has been called a “breakthrough device” by the Food and Drug Administration, the American agency in charge of regulating medication and medical equipment. This program enables the marketing authorization on the American territory, which is the next major step of Neuralink. Before being commercialized, Neuralink’s implant will have to be tested on humans to certify that it is both an efficient and harmless device.
Elon Musk seems to be rather confident about the outcome of the process, as bespeak his words: “We are planning to implant this device next year into human beings who suffer from serious spinal cord injuries, for example, tetraplegics or quadriplegics,” before adding confidently “our norms related to the implantation of the device are far more numerous than the FDA rules. So are our security norms with Tesla more numerous than what the American government requires”.
In the short term, the company aims to offer a solution for all people who suffer from neurological diseases or spinal cord injuries, for example, to enable people with physical disabilities to recover their movement capacity by controlling digital devices with their minds. Later, Neuralink hopes to help blind people regain their eyesight with a device more deeply connected to their brains.
Neuralink is not the only firm to be interested in brain-machine interfaces. Still, it is the only one to promote the idea of minimally invasive surgery in the absence of any “medical need” to the general public: Facebook, for example, is working on a device enabling people to type letters without a keyboard. But its device consists of a wristband capable of detecting electrical signals sent by the brain to the arms’ muscles, which therefore does not require any medical intervention.
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Republicworld.com: Elon Musk says Neuralink will start implanting chips in the human brain by 2022.