Elon Musk’s Neuralink, the secretive company developing brain-machine interfaces, showed off some of the technology it has been developing to the public for the first time. The goal is to eventually begin implanting devices in paralyzed humans, allowing them to control phones or computers.
The first big advance is flexible “threads,” which are less likely to damage the brain than the materials currently used in brain-machine interfaces. These threads also create the possibility of transferring a higher volume of data, according to a white paper credited to “Elon Musk & Neuralink.” The abstract notes that the system could include “as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads.”
The threads are 4 to 6 μm in width, which makes them considerably thinner than a human hair. In addition to developing the threads, Neuralink’s other big advance is a machine that automatically embeds them.
In the future, scientists from Neuralink hope to use a laser beam to get through the skull, rather than drilling holes, they said in interviews with The New York Times. Early experiments will be done with neuroscientists at Stanford University, according to that report. The company aims for human trials as soon as the second quarter of next year, according to The New York Times.
The first paralyzed person to receive a brain implant that allowed him to control a computer cursor was Matthew Nagle. In 2006, Nagle, who had a spinal cord injury, played Pong using only his mind; the basic movement required took him only four days to master, he told The New York Times. Since then, paralyzed people with brain implants have also brought objects into focus and moved robotic arms in labs, as part of scientific research. The system Nagle and others have used is called BrainGate and was developed initially at Brown University.
The system presented today, if it’s functional, may be a substantial advance over older technology. BrainGate relied on the Utah Array, a series of stiff needles that allows for up to 128 electrode channels. Not only is that fewer channels than Neuralink is promising — meaning less data from the brain is being picked up — it’s also stiffer than Neuralink’s threads. That’s a problem for long-term functionality: the brain shifts in the skull but the needles of the array don’t, leading to damage. The thin polymers Neuralink is using may solve that problem.
However, Neuralink’s technology is more difficult to implant than the Utah Array, precisely because it’s so flexible. To combat that problem, the company has developed ”a neurosurgical robot capable of inserting six threads (192 electrodes) per minute [automatically],” according to the white paper. In photos, it looks something like a cross between a microscope and a sewing machine. It also avoids blood vessels, which may lead to less of an inflammatory response in the brain, the paper says.
Finally, the paper says that Neuralink has developed a custom chip that is better able to read, clean up, and amplify signals from the brain. Right now, it can only transmit data via a wired connection (it uses USB-C), but ultimately the goal is to create a system than can work wirelessly.
Right now, though, the company is still working in rats to make sure the platform is stable. But the technology, if it works, is promising: a “high bandwidth” brain connection, implanted via robot surgery. The connection will be made using flexible “threads,” which are about a third of the width of a human hair, allowing many neurons’ activity to be recorded. The hope is that will lead to better, more precise outcomes than previous attempts at brain-machine interfaces.
Developing. We will post most updates live from tonight’s press conference as it happens.