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So, what have Elon Musk and his team at Neuralink been up to recently? Well, according to an article he wrote for the Journal of Medical Internet Research in 2019, rather a lot!
Elon has for some time been interested in building so-called ‘brain-machine interfaces’ to improve the lives of many people with a range of health conditions. Historically, this has involved other scientists creating things like brain-level prosthetic devices that control computer cursors in humans, but also brain-controlled robotic limbs and speech synthesisers, which would be useful for people who have lost the ability to use their limbs or speak. Interestingly, although these developments have been impressive in terms of making human brains and machines work together, Elon points out that this field of science has up to now been hindered by some challenges:
Firstly, in our brains we have literally millions of cells called ‘neurons’, which are essentially a dense network of ‘electrical wiring’ that enable us to think and learn and do all the other clever things that we can do as humans. Some brain-machine interface devices are ‘non-invasive’, meaning that they can pass through the skull without requiring surgery to put electrodes directly into our brain to work. While these devices have managed to record the activity or ‘electrophysiology’ of millions of neuron cells, recordings are usually distorted and not targeted enough.
Secondly, ‘Invasive’ devices are more commonly used because they are better at getting a more precise reading of single brain cell electrical activity, or so-called ‘action potentials’ or ‘spikes’, compared to non-invasive ones. But the problem with these is that the electrodes are not great at reaching neurons deeper into the brain because the electrodes that record the activity are often too big and cannot go far enough into the brain without causing damage when implanted, which means that they can only detect thousands rather than millions of neurons spikes at any one time.
Microelectrodes are the best way to do large and precise recordings of neuronal activity. But up to now, no microelectrode has been produced for clinical use. According to Musk, the challenges of making such a powerful, yet tiny, piece of wireless tech is that it needs to be safe and durable enough to stand the test of time, built with materials that can sit in the brain without causing problems biologically. Specifically, most microelectrodes to date have been made of rigid metals or chips, which are easier to implant but also readily attacked by the immune system because the body sees them as a foreign object, which wears out the microelectrodes quicker, so they need to be replaced more regularly. It’s also the case that the lack of bendy material used means it’s easier for electrodes to irritate or puncture blood vessels nearer to the surface of the brain, and harder to capture the electrical activity of a larger number of neurons in a specific brain region. Another related issue is that even though more flexible electrical wires or “threads” would overcome these problems, human surgeons would certainly struggle to implant these quickly and precisely enough. So, a new kind of robot surgeon would also be needed to quickly implant the many tiny microelectrode threads needed for the device to work properly.
So, Elon’s team created the first state-of-the-art low power device with a dense microchip weighing just 15 grams (see picture 1) that fits on onto the skull. This connects to a thin film ‘array’ of 48 to 96 tiny flexible threads made from polyamide (i.e., plastic nylon) threads tipped with gold (picture 2), each with 32 microelectrodes at the end (picture 3) that can be implanted into the human brain for clinical use. The array of 48 threads is easier and more reliable to make for manufacturing purposes. Now, if you do the math, 48 or 96 threads x 32 microelectrodes can record the electrical activity of 1536 to 3072 electrical contact points or ‘channels’ for each array. When linked up to the custom-built device with a USB, the researchers can live-stream full broad-band electrophysiological data, which is truly groundbreaking feat!
To achieve this, Neuralink also came up with a completely new ‘wafer-level’ process to produce the tiny threads with microelectrodes to be scalable for roll out at a manufacturing level – meaning they can at some point be made more cheaply, which is a classic Musk signature move, having done something similar with Tesla’s electric cars! They also went to the trouble of creating 20 different threads and electrode types – why not?
Amazingly, they also made and tested a completely new robot surgeon from scratch (picture 4), which is capable of implanting 6 of the microelectrode threads (… So that’s 192 electrodes) per minute with extremely high (or micron) precision!
Elon and his team showed that the procedure is both effective and safe to use in targeting certain brain regions in rats, with reduced risk of irritating or damaging surface level blood vessels and they can be implanted for long-term use. The plan in the future is to make the connection between the device sensor and the implants wireless and converting the electrical activity into meaningful algorithms to do things like create a sense of touch.
Why is this important? Well, if Neuralink can do the same thing with Humans as they have done with rats with this early prototype, this may move us a lot closer to developing brain-machine interfaces to improve the lives of many people with long-term health conditions! It also invites us to think about the scope of this new technology for all of us in the future when harnessing the combined power of the human brain and machines as part of our evolution. Now, this might resemble an episode from Charlie Brookers Black Mirror, but Musk is keen to point out elsewhere that its Artificial Intelligence we should be most scared about, where he expresses a lot of caution about tech outsmarting us. In any case, a healthy dose of ethical thinking for the development and use of brain-machine interfaces will undoubtedly be sensible going forwards.
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