The future is here, sort of, as Elon Musk looks forward to clinical trials for his startup Neuralink’s brain implants. As reported on STATNews August 28, Musk has, “unveiled a coin-sized prototype of a brain implant developed by his startup Neuralink to enable people who are paralyzed to operate smartphones and robotic limbs with their thoughts.” In a live-stream to over 150,000 people, the startup brought out “Gertrude,” a pig with the firm’s, “device implanted in its head.” Gertrude’s purported brain activity was viewed while she sniffed around a pigpen. Musk did not provide evidence that the “beeps and bright blue wave patterns on screen” were really coming from pig’s brain. Acknowledging the Frankenstein-esque potential in his device, Musk said, “This is obviously sounding increasingly like a Black Mirror episode.”
Musk said his firm has a breakthrough device designation by the FDA, and this regulatory path may allow the company to start clinical trials soon in folks with paraplegia and tetraplegia. After a “glossy video,” the demonstration included a surgical “sewing machine” robot that looks like “a giant Apple device.” They he showed the new brain implant, designed to “fit snugly” in the top of the skull. The prior 2019 version, “involved a credit-card sized device designed to be positioned behind the back of a person’s ear, with several wires stretching to the top of the skull.” Showing video of a pig on a treadmill, Musk said the device can, “predict the position of limbs with high accuracy.” This would be key to allow a person to do an action, “like controlling a prosthetic limb, for example.”
Cortical Surface Versus Deeper Implantation
The breakthrough device designation from FDA is geared to speed up the regulatory machine, but is not a guarantee of a green light for clinical study. Matthew MacDougall, the firm’s head neurosurgeon, reported, “the company had so far only implanted its technology into the brain’s cortical surface, the coaster-width layer enveloping the brain, but added that it hoped to go deeper in the future.” But Musk opined, “You could solve blindness, you could solve paralysis, you could solve hearing — you can solve a lot just by interfacing with the cortex.” Referring to devices as “links,” Musk and the neurosurgeon hope to put them in deeper structures like the hypothalamus, “which is believed to play a critical role in mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.”
Rival Firms and Academia Have Better Tech?
At the 2019 presentation, the firm released a paper asserting it showed that, “electrodes implanted in the brains of rats could record neural signals.” But the work failed to show where the implants were recording signals from, the length of recording, or a link between the signals and the body movements of the rats. And while in promoting this year’s “reveal,” Musk spoke of “AI symbiosis while u wait” and the “matrix in the matrix” the event fell short of these high ambitions. While the Musk prototype is “ambitious,” there is no evidence that it can match the, “brain-machine interfaces developed by academic labs and other companies.” Some have shown they can “listen in on neural activity” and enable apes and people, “to control a cursor with their brain” known as “read-out” technology. Also, they have been able to use brain stimulation to “input” or write-in information like a command. Neuralink reports its tech, “would have both read-out and write-in capabilities.”