Science

Elon Musk’s Neuralink may eradicate brain-related illnesses

by Ayush Raj | October 5, 2020

The Link would mimic how neurons in the brain communicate with each other and with the rest of the body. Art by Daniela Tran (’21)

Imagine a day where blindness, memory loss, depression, seizures, and brain damage are a thing of the past. Hard to believe? Billionaire Elon Musk’s company Neuralink hopes to achieve this and more using an implantable chip inside the human brain.

On August 28, 2020, Musk and his team at Neuralink unveiled their chip, which they called the “Link.” During the event, Musk presented a pig named Gertrude, who had the chip implanted inside her brain. In a live demonstration of the device, he showed real-time spikes of neurons firing from an area of the brain linked to Gertrude’s snout. While Ralph Adolphs, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, said the announcement of the Neuralink chip was “tremendously exciting” and “a huge technical achievement,” one can argue that it is still in the realm of science fiction as far as the human brain goes.

The Link measures 0.9 inches by 0.3 inches, and Musk compares it to the size of a large coin. He calls it the “Fitbit in your skull,” as it connects to the brain with wires and has a battery life of twelve hours per charge, after which the user would need to wirelessly charge it again. Musk envisions this chip being implanted into the human brain by a surgical robot created by the industrial design firm Woke Studio. When the Link is ready for human trials, a neurosurgeon will perform an incision in the skin and remove a small piece of the skull. The robot will then use its sensors and cameras to insert the wires into the brain up to a depth of six millimeters. Finally, the surgeon will secure the implant and close the skull. Musk expects these procedures to take about one hour.

What if someone changes his or her mind and wants the Link removed? Musk displayed another pig during the demo for whom the Link was implanted and then removed, proving that the implant is fully reversible. Eventually, the goal for the Link is to be able to read the brain’s neuron signals via the connected electrodes or wires. Using artificial intelligence, the chip’s software would use data collected from the neuron signals to teach itself how the brain uses the signals to communicate with the rest of the body, leading to replication in what the brain does. The human brain has around 86 billion neurons, and a given electrode can influence anywhere between 1,000 to 10,000 neurons. To influence billions of neurons, Musk anticipates multiple Links to be implanted strategically throughout the brain.

The Link is a breakthrough device; however, it can be an ethics maze. Dr. Allan McCay, a Sydney University Law School lecturer interested in behavioral genetics and neurotechnology states that “those kinds of alterations [to the brain] might go wrong or have unintended side effects, perhaps generating things like impulsivity or something that might lead to trouble.”

Neuralink is not the first to experiment with brain implants that could restore lost human capabilities. Researchers have placed probes in the brains of those who are paralyzed since the 1990s. Building on that research, Neuralink hopes to make this Brain Computer Interface (BCI) a reality for everyone. The company has applied for human trials with the Federal Drug Administration, and if approved, it hopes to launch experimental runs on humans by the end of the year 2020.

Categories: Science

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