Neuralink’s tech embeds tiny wires in the brain to read electrical pulses
This evening during a packed press conference in San Franciso, scientists at Elon Musk’s Neuralink — a startup founded in 2017 with the stated goal of creating “ultra-high-bandwidth brain-machine interfaces” to connect humans and computer — gave an update on progress. They claim the prototypes they’ve developed to date will help alleviate chronic medical conditions like epilepsy, and could one day enable amputees to regain mobility and help physically disabled patients hear, speak, and see.
Neuralink demonstrated a device embedded within a laboratory rat’s brain that’s capable of extracting information from many neurons at once. Novelly, it uses flexible cellophane-like conductive wires inserted into soft tissue using a “sewing machine,” the work of founding Neuralink members from the University of California Tim Hanson and Philip Sabes and UC Berkeley professor Michel Maharbiz.
An autonomous neurosurgical robot taps a computer vision system to guide a needle containing wire bundles into the brain (avoiding blood vessels as it does so), and the wires — which measure a quarter of the diameter of a human hair (4 to 6 μm) — link to a series of electrodes at different locations and depths. At maximum capacity, the robot’s able to insert six threads containing 192 electrodes per minute.
An abstract in a forthcoming Neuralink white paper notes that the system could include “as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads.” Right now, they can only transmit data via a wired connection, but the goal is to create a system that can work wirelessly.
High-resolution brain-machine interfaces, or BCI for short, are predictably complicated — they must be able to read neural activity such that they can pick out which groups of neurons are performing which tasks. Implanted electrodes are well-suited to this, but historically, hardware limitations have caused them to come into contact with more than one region of the brain or produced interfering scar tissue.
Rarely is activity isolated in brain regions like the prefrontal lobe and hippocampus. Instead, it takes place across various brain regions, making it difficult to pin down. Then there’s the matter of translating neural electrical impulses into machine-readable information. Researchers have yet to crack the brain’s encoding — pulses from the visual center aren’t like those produced when formulating speech, and it’s sometimes difficult to identify signals’ origination points.
None of that’s discouraging Neuralink, which has so far received $158 million in funding and has 90 employees. It hopes to begin working with human subjects as soon as the second quarter of next year in partnership with neurosurgeons at Stanford University, and while the company expects that inserting the electrodes will initially require drilling holes through the skull, it hopes to soon use a laser to pierce bone with a series of small holes.
The first Neuralink devices designed for human trials — the N1, a cylinder that’s roughly eight millimeters in diameter and four millimeters tall — contains the aforementioned chip, a thin film, and a hermetic substrate that can interface with up to 1,024 electrodes. Up to 10 can be placed in one hemisphere, but Neuralink expects that the first patients will get four sensors — four embedded in the brain’s motor areas and one in a somatic sensory area. They’re connected via small wires under the scalp to an inductive coil behind the year, which in turn connects wirelessly through the skin to a battery-powered Bluetooth device called the Link.
It’ll face competition from the Pentagon, which has financed research to develop robotic control systems that would enable brain control of prosthetic devices. Separately, researchers with backing from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have managed to create interfaces allowing quadriplegics to manipulate robot arms with dexterity.
But Musk projects that Neuralink’s system will eventually be used to create what he describes as a “digital super-intelligent [cognitive] layer” that enables humans to “merge” with artificially intelligence software. “The constraint is … input and output speed. The thing that will ultimately constrain our abilit[ies] is bandwidth,” he said onstage.
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