Elon Musk recently gave a presentation on Neuralink, his newest venture designed to create computer-brain interfaces. Founded in 2017, the company is experimenting with a minimally invasive brain implant that utilizes “threads” to reduce the amount of damage done to surrounding brain tissue compared to current implanted devices. Musk spoke on the unnecessary size of most current implants, saying that a smaller chip could be used in their place. Providing patients with a smaller, less obstructive brain implant is exactly what Neuralink is aiming to do with their product.
In the presentation, Musk also said he sees Neuralink potentially bridging the gap between the human brain and artificial intelligence as well.
“With a high bandwidth brain machine interface, I think we can actually go along for the ride and we can effectively have the option of merging with AI,” Musk noted.
For the time being, however, Neuralink is focused on medical implications. Musk described the threads that will implant into the brain as being roughly one-third the size of a thin human hair, which is roughly the size of a neuron. Because of the intricacy and precision required by this procedure, it will be carried out by a robot to ensure no blood vessels are pierced or damaged. The robotic device uses a needle that is about 24 microns in size, so small that it’s almost not visible to the naked eye.
Musk noted that up to 10,000 of these tiny electrodes could be inserted into the brain and used to measure. Though this sounds like a massive procedure, he claimed that the 2-millimeter incision can essentially be glued shut after operation with no need for sutures. These threads are completely internal as well, therefore no wires are visibly seen sticking out of the patient’s head. It can connect to a smartphone as well to be conveniently controlled by the user.
Neuralink’s current technology would involve the drilling of holes into a patient’s skull to insert the electrode threads, but the company aspires to use lasers to create these tiny holes in the future to minimize invasiveness. This technology was demonstrated on an animal model this week and displayed performance levels that outpowered current sensors in terms of data transfer by about 10 times.
The implant from which the threads originate, known as the N1 implant, is very small in size. Co-founder and president Max Hodak noted that potentially up to 10 sensors can be implanted into each patient. This implant connects to a wearable device called the Link, which contains a Bluetooth radio and a battery. This is the device that allows Neuralink to be controlled through a mobile phone app.
Musk hopes to have Neuralink inserted into a human patient “before the end of next year.” Hodak concurs, telling New York Times that he’s sees Neuralink being used in medical applications somewhat soon. Such applications include allowing amputees to regain mobility using prosthetics, improving recovery from brain trauma and reversing hearing, visual, and other sensory deficiencies.
— Exponential Medicine (@ExponentialMed) July 17, 2019