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Neuralink’s Brain-Machine Implant, What Does It Mean for Humans?

By Andrea Villar | Tue, 09/01/2020 - 12:41

“It is like a Fitbit in your skull with a tiny wire”. That is how Elon Musk described the progress on his brain-machine implant, which is roughly the size of a quarter and can read and transmit the neural activity of a pig. In an online event last week, Tesla’s CEO showed how the implant was able to read some neural signals in real time. But what does this mean for humans?

Neuralink devices aim to address neurological diseases and injuries and eventually directly link human brains to the internet. Likewise, Musk wants to build on existing medical treatments, as well as one day work on surgeries that could improve cognitive functioning, according to a Wall Street Journal article on the company’s launch. Neuralink wants to first use the device with people who have severe spinal cord injuries to help them talk, type and move using their brain waves. “I am confident that in the long term, it will be possible to restore someone’s full-body motion,” said Musk at the event.

Neuralink’s goal is for everyone to one day get these types of implants to stay competitive against artificial-intelligence technology and eventually achieve telepathic communication with one another and their possessions. 

A Long Road Ahead?

Currently, some versions of neural implants are already used by people around the world, mostly to treat neurological disorders like epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. In 2008, researchers from the University of Cambridge found out that an electronic device implanted directly in the brain can detect, stop and even prevent epileptic seizures.

According to the Stanford Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, which offers responsive neurostimulation (RNS) system, vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) and surgery using a MRI-guided laser-based device, innovative brain devices are used to treat seizures unresponsive to medications. The RNS, for instance, is placed beneath the scalp. “It is connected to one or two leads that are placed within the brain or rest on the brain's surface in the area of the seizure focus. The procedure does not involve removal of any brain tissue,” explains the website. The device, implanted for the first time in 2014, continuously monitors brain electrical activity, senses abnormal electrical activity and responds by delivering unnoticeable pulses of electrical stimuli to normalize the activity before the person experiences seizures.

What is the next step? The next generation of brain computer interfaces (BCIs) seek to translate brain signals into useful data or even use them to manipulate machines. In 2017, Faccebook said it wanted to create a headband that would allow people to type with their thoughts. Two years later, Mark Zuckerberg’s company said in July it was financing universities for research on human volunteers. In the University of California, in San Francisco, researchers have been developing “speech decoders'' able to determine what people are trying to say by analyzing their brain signals, explained the institution in a scientific paper.

Though Neuralink’s implant still has to go through clinical trials on human beings, the company has been granted FDA “breakthrough device” status, which could speed efforts toward human trials as soon as next year.

Andrea Villar Andrea Villar Journalist and Industry Analyst