JUL 26, 2019 7:00 PM PDT

Elon Musk showcases advances in elusive Neuralink brain implant

Last week, Elon Musk took the stage in front of an invitation-only crowd at the California Academy of Sciences to unveil his latest foray into connecting brains to computers: a futuristic device designed to record from thousands of neurons in the brain.

The technology is a product of Neuralink, a company Musk founded to develop a tiny, high-bandwidth, implantable brain-computer interface (BCI). Ultimately, Neuralink aims to use this device to help those suffering from neurological diseases or paralysis. For example, the device may one day enable quadriplegics to control a computer or phone with just their thoughts.

"The goal is to record from and stimulate spikes [or neural signals] in neurons," with much more bandwidth than what has been done to date, and safely, Musk said at the event, which was live-streamed.

So, how does this brain implant work? According to a preprint article in bioRxiv, the recording device contains arrays of small flexible electrode threads with thousands of "channels" - up to 3,072 electrodes per array to be exact. Each channel can record the "spiking" or activity of a single neuron in near real-time. Importantly, the electrode threads can be implanted into the brain's outer layer, called the cortex, using a surgical robot with great precision, allowing researchers to target specific brain regions. The arrays are packaged in a small device containing custom-built hardware, which connects each channel to a USB port outside the brain. Despite the public debut of this impressive tool, it is important to note that none of this research has been peer-reviewed by experts in the field.

Ultrathin electrode thread array touching the brain's surface to record neural signals in near real-time.

Photo source: Neuralink article published in bioRxiv

Neuralink has three primary goals in the development of the BCI device: flexible materials for electrodes, miniaturization of the electronics or hardware, and making the implant fully wireless, says Ken Shepard, a professor of electrical and biomedical engineering at Colombia University, who is part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency initiative to develop a similar flexible, wireless implant.

Neuralink was not the first to develop a high-density neural recording tool. The Utah Array, which consists of a rigid grid of 128 channels has been successfully used in a number of BCIs, including the BrainGate device created by researchers at Brown University. Another successful tool is the Neuropixel, a probe developed by researchers at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that contains nearly 1,000 recording sites on a single tip. In fact, the current Neuralink device builds upon prior work by Neualink senior scientist Philip "Flip" Sabes and bioengineer Timothy Hanson while they were at the University of California, San Francisco.

Photo of Neuralink's robotic system for inserting the electrode threads into the brain.

Photo source: Bloomberg

Neuralink ambitiously aims to begin using the brain implant in humans in 2020, but Musk and his research team have only demonstrated its success in rodent brains, so far. "The other big challenge is regulatory," says Shepard. Using electrodes of this scale in humans is going to face significant hurdles from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Perhaps a more practical consideration for Neuralink and the field is how long materials in the probes and microchip hardware can resist degradation. In order to make reliable recordings over time, "you need to make the whole system last for decades," says Cynthia Chestek, a neural engineer at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor.

Learn more about what's happening in the field of BCI from the TED talk below:

Source: Bloomberg, Science, Scientific American

About the Author
You May Also Like
FEB 26, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
FEB 26, 2020
Optogenetic Techniques Provide Insight Into ALS
In humans, motor neurons link thoughts with the motion of the body. Now researchers have learned more about how they are ...
FEB 28, 2020
Cannabis Sciences
FEB 28, 2020
Pharmaceutical CBD Better for Epilepsy than Artisanal CBD
New research has found that children and teenagers suffering from epilepsy had significantly better seizure control when ...
APR 07, 2020
Genetics & Genomics
APR 07, 2020
One Gene Can Accelerate or Slow ALS Progression
Mutations in a single gene had different biological impacts depending on the context.
APR 20, 2020
Neuroscience
APR 20, 2020
Noninvasive Magnetic Stimulation Improves Working Memory
Neuroscientists from the Research Center of Neurology and Skoltech have found that noninvasive magnetic stimulation may ...
MAY 03, 2020
Plants & Animals
MAY 03, 2020
Fruit Flies Avoid the Scent of Predators
Fruit flies can be particularly annoying, especially when one finds its way into your home and begins buzzing in circles ...
MAY 15, 2020
Neuroscience
MAY 15, 2020
Parents Change Each Other's Brain Activity When with Children
Researchers from Nanyang Technical University in Singapore have found that parents’ brains respond differently to ...
Loading Comments...