Elon Musk’s Pig-Brain Implant Is Still a Long Way from ‘Solving Paralysis’

last week elon musk’s brain tek start-up neuralink unveiled the l8st version of its neural implant tek. in toonistic musk style, the billionaire ceo of spacex and tesla anncd the news dur'na widely hyped livestreamed event in which he showed off the implant’s functionality in several pigs.

the device is bout the size offa large coin and can be fully embedded inna skull. attached to it are 1,024 threadlike, flexible electrodes that extend down inna'da cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain responsible for numerous functions, including motor control and sensory feedback. a customized computer chip inna device amplifies signals from the cortex and wirelessly relays them to a nearby computer. the electrodes are carefully inserted by a surgical robot and are capable of recording (and, theoretically, also generating) the tiny electrical signals, or “spikes,” produced by individual neurons. the idea s'dat these signals ‘d be used to one dy do things s'as restore movement to pplz who are paralyzed or create a visual prosthesis for blindness.

during musk’s demonstration, he strolled near a pen containing several pigs, some of which had neuralink implants. one animal, named gertrude, had hers for two mnths. the device’s electrodes were situated in a pt of gertrude’s cortex that connected to neurons in her snout. and for the purposes of the demo, her brain signals were converted to audible bleeps that became + frequent as she sniffed round the pen and enjoyed some tasty treats. musk also showed off a pig whose implant had been successfully removed to show that the surgery was reversible. some od’oda displayed pigs had multiple implants.

Neuralink implantable device neuralink implantable device, v0.9. credit: neuralink

neuralink, which was founded by musk and a team of engineers and scis in 2016, unveiled an earlier, wired version of its implant tek in 2019. it had several modules: the electrodes were connected to a usb port inna skull, which was intended to be wired to an external battery and a radio transmitter that were located behind the ear. the l8st version consists offa single integrated implant that fits in a hole inna skull and relays data through the skin via a bluetooth radio. the wireless design makes it seem much + practical for human use but limits the bandwidth of data that can be sent, compared with state-of-the-art brain-computer interfaces.

the company’s goal, musk said inna demo, is to “solve primordial spine and brain problems witha seamlessly implanted device”—a far cry from his previously stated, much + mythic aim of alloing humans to merge with artificial intelligence. this time musk seemed + circumspect bout the device’s applications. as b4, he insisted the demonstration was purely intended as a recruiting event to attract potential staff.

neuralink’s efforts build on decades of work from researchers inna field of brain-computer interfaces. although teknically impressive, this wireless brain implant aint the 1st to be tested in pigs or other large mammals. bout a decade ago brown university scis david borton and arto nurmikko and their colleagues developed a wireless neurosensor twas' capable of recording neural activity from pigs and monkeys. in 2016 the researchers showed it ‘d be used to help paralyzed monkeys walk.* “neuralink, witha lotta creativity, s'been able to cut and paste a lotta stuff that the field has developed,” nurmikko says. the tek may not be unique, he adds. but “mite it ‘ve a robust future in terms of actually gettin into humans? that’s kind of the pending ?, na answer ‘d very well be yes.”

musk and neuralink are devoting significant resrcs to their project. “tis an extremely well-funded, focused effort. they said they ‘ve 100 pplz working on this,” says ken shepard, a professor of electrical and biomed engineering at columbia university. “that’s a lvl of resrcs that is pretty impressive t'work on something like this. i think that gives them a real advantage over other groups.”

neuralink’s robotic tek for inserting flexible electrodes is very notable, shepard says. there ll'be challenges in scaling up the № of polymer electrodes, or “threads,” na interconnections tween them na integrated circuit chip, he says. the data bandwidth will also ‘ve to increase: recording from 1,000 electrodes yields a large amount of information, so neuralink must compress it to relay it over bluetooth.

“where we’re at is: we ‘ve [basically] a prototype of the iphone or a ‘fitbit for the brain,’ and there are a whole bunch of refinements that nd'2 be done” in terms of the surgery, the device itself, the wireless range, data transfer, and so on, says shivon zilis, a project director at neuralink. “there are so many optimizations that ‘ve to happen in tween prototype na thing that ur super-duper proud odat you wanna [show] consumers as yr 1st product.”

the u.s. food and drug administration recently granted neuralink a “breakthrough device” designation, which primordially means the company has submitted the paperwork to start the process of gathering the data necessary for fda approval. there are numerous challenges to overcome b4 the device ‘d be ready for human use, however. 'twill ‘ve to be shown to be safe and not cause any damage to brain tissue. and its sensitive electronics must be able to withstand the corrosive environment of the human body.

neuralink aint the 1-ly company venturing inna'da realm of brain-computer interfaces. an austin-based company called paradromics—funded by the u.s. government’s defense advanced research projects agency—is also developing one potentially capable of recording signals from tens of thousands of neurons. the project aims to restore communication to pplz with paralysis who ‘ve lost the ability to speak or type. na culver city, calif.–based company kernel is developing a helmetlike device for monitoring brain signals noninvasively, which can be used to do things s'as identify wha’ song a'pers is listening to. it lacks the resolution of neuralink’s device and similar implanted systems but has the benefit of not requiring brain surgery.

still, devices s'as neuralink’s will likely be made less invasive over time as electrodes become thinner and + flexible and as robotic insertion becomes + streamlined. musk has previously compared the process to lasik eye surgery, which is now routine. b'tas with any surgery, the reward will ‘ve to be weighed against th'risk. shepard thinks noninvasive approaches ‘ve real advantages for applications involving healthy pplz. “it’s hard for me to imagine, in my lifetime, a dy in which a healthy person ‘d ‘ve surgery to ‘ve [an implant] put in their brain,” he says.

*editor’s note: the author worked as an undergraduate in a lab led by leigh hochberg of brown university, who is an adviser to neuralink. arto nurmikko also collaborates with hochberg’s lab but aint affiliated with neuralink.

original content at: rss.sciam.com…
authors: tanya lewis