Elon Musk’s Neuralink Showcases Brain-Computer Interface

Elon Musk and his startup Neuralink’s scientists showed off a new brain-computer interface they say will advance therapeutic devices treating various neurological conditions with a new level of precision. The technology, in development for two years, will soon be submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for testing on human subjects. The company thus far has received $158 million in funding and has about 100 employees. Musk stated that one goal of the announcement is to recruit more talent.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “the goal is to use the platform to treat neurological conditions like movement disorders, spinal-cord injury and blindness … [and] the company … is first focusing on patients with severe neurological conditions, but wants to make it safe enough to turn the implantation surgery into an elective procedure, like Lasik.”

Neuralink president Max Hodak said the company hopes to have its “first safety study” with five patients in less than a year, but added “the road is long” to more mainstream use.

Neuralink is “a tiny probe with nearly 3,100 electrodes laid out across about 100 flexible wires, or threads, each individually inserted into rat brains by a custom-made surgical robot … [which] can monitor the activity of upward of 1,000 neurons at a time.” The device has already been tested on monkeys, which were able to control a computer with their brains. But, adds WSJ, “the company didn’t specify what behavioral experiments were performed or how reliably they were able to translate brain activity into smooth, well-controlled movement.”

Facebook, Kernel, CTRL-Labs and Paradromics are “trying to build neural interfaces for clinical and nonclinical applications.” The U.S. Brain Initiative, started by President Obama in 2013, is also spurring development in neurotechnology.

The New York Times reports that Hodak “shared Mr. Musk’s optimism that Neuralink technology might one day — relatively soon — help humans with an array of ailments, like helping amputees regain mobility or helping people hear, speak and see.” Currently, surgeons would have to drill holes in the skull to implant the threads, but the company hopes to be able to use laser beams to do the same thing in the future.

Neuralink also plans to work “with neurosurgeons at Stanford University and possibly other institutions to conduct early experiments.” Stanford neurosurgery professor Jaimie Henderson, who is a specialist in the Deep Brain Stimulation treatment, is an adviser to Neuralink.

Neuralink stands out for its technique to place “flexible threads of electrodes in proximity to neurons.” “The ability to capture information from a large number of cells and then send it wirelessly to a computer for later analysis is believed to be an important step to improving basic understanding of the brain,” says NYT.

According to Terry Sejnowski, Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, “the flexibility of the Neuralink threads would be an advance … [but] the Neuralink researchers still needed to prove that the insulation of their threads could survive for long periods in a brain’s environment, which has a salt solution that deteriorates many plastics.”