Elon Musk has shown his company Neuralink’s brain-computer interface for the first time. During an August 28 announcement, Neuralink unveiled prototypes of the device. They showed pigs with the devices implanted in their brains.
The device looks like a coin with extremely thin wires protruding from one side. It is designed for implantation in the skull, where the wires are inserted a few millimeters into the outside of the brain. The wires can then sense when neurons are stimulated or release their own electrical signals to activate neurons. Musk showed a video of nerve cells reacting to the electrodes.
The ultimate hope is that these tiny devices will be able to both detect and create the signals from neurons. According to Musk, they could then be useful in treating medical problems caused in the brain or spine. The devices may also enable the integration of computers into the human brain in the distant future.
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The Neuralink team used three pigs to demonstrate the device. The first, named Joyce, had no implant. The other, Gertrude, had an implant that monitored the nerve cells in her snout. While the pig rummaged through some hay, Musk showed live signals from Gertrude’s Neuralink device through a screen. These signals appeared when the snout touched food or the ground.
Dorothy, the third pig, had already received an implant. It has since been removed. “Dorothy shows that you can put the Neuralink in and take it out and you’ll end up with a healthy, happy pig that’s indistinguishable from a normal pig,” Musk said. He added that this is important for use in humans as they may want to remove or upgrade their implants.
“The most challenging thing they’ve achieved is that the animal appears to be happy, walking around and behaving normally, and the data is transmitted wirelessly,” says bioelectronics expert Timir Datta-Chaudhuri of the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York. “Other people who do similar things usually show the animal under anesthesia on an operating table, with wires sticking out of the brain.”
While this is impressive, according to Datta-Chaudhuri, it is not enough to show that the devices are secure. Musk states that the implant can be performed with relatively little bleeding in the brain. “You would think that something would definitely bleed when you put a wire in it, but actually it doesn’t on a very small scale,” Musk said.
“They downplayed the risk of brain damage, but this damage is sometimes not easy to detect in humans, let alone pigs,” says Datta-Chaudhuri. ‘You don’t know if the pig suddenly has a speech disorder or if other pigs no longer interact with the animal because it behaves strangely.’
During the announcement, members of the Neuralink team expressed their long-term expectations. These ranged from restoring sight to people with eye damage and reducing pain, to storing memories and telepathy.
Some of these expectations are more realistic than others, says Datta-Chaudhuri. For example, Musk talked about bypassing back injuries to restore the ability to move in paralyzed individuals, which he says will be the focus of the company’s first human clinical trials, which will begin soon. Devices similar to Neuralink have achieved this before, so expect the same from Neuralink.
On the other hand, abilities like reading memory require a detailed understanding of the brain in addition to advanced technology that we simply don’t have yet, Datta-Chaudhuri said.
“I think there’s a lot they have yet to discover and it’s going to be an uphill battle for them,” he says. “But this snowball can roll and get bigger simply because of brand advantage and Elon Musk’s connectedness bringing a social spotlight.”