Elon Musk’s brain-hacking company Neuralink demonstrated a working brain-to-machine interface in a live demonstration on August 28th.
The company revealed that a coin-sized computer had been installed in the brain of a pig called Gertrude. As the pig investigated its environment, the Neuralink device, hooked up to neurons connected to Gertrude’s snout, detected the neural activity. These spikes were rendered in real time on a graph and as a series of beeps.
Musk added that Gertrude has had the device installed in her brain for the past two months.
Gertrude was joined in the demonstration by two other pigs – Joyce, who did not have an implant, and Dorothy, who had an implant installed and subsequently removed. This demonstrates that the device can be taken out if necessary, or if an upgrade becomes available.
Musk said that the company had installed multiple Neuralink devices in another test pig. The Neuralink device is about the “size of large coin” with wires connecting it to the brain within a few centimetres of the device. “It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk noted.
The device consists of a probe with over 3,000 electrodes attached to flexible threads thinner than a human hair. Each electrode can monitor the activity of 1,000 brain neurons at a time. The device can read or write data over 1024 channels, allowing it to both read and stimulate neural activity
In order to install the device, a small hole, just over two centimetres wide, is drilled into the skull. The device sits in the hole of the skull with electrodes extending out of it into around four millimetres of the brain’s surface.
Since revealing the original device, Neuralink has made it smaller and simpler. “About a year ago, we had a device which had multiple parts including a piece that had to sit behind your ear and it was complex and wouldn’t look totally normal,” Musk said.
During the presentation, he noted that it comes with an all-day battery life and is designed to be inductively charged overnight. Data can be transmitted via low energy Bluetooth with a range of up to 10 metres.
The company has also designed and built a “neurosurgical robot” to perform the necessary surgery capable to install the device. It is capable of inserting 192 electrodes into the brain every minute.
Musk noted that only a robot is fast and precise enough to install the device. “You want the surgery to be as automated as possible and the only way you can achieve the level of precision that’s needed is with an advanced robot.” As part of the process, the robot images the brain to avoid blood vessels to prevent bleeding.
Furthermore, Musk added that automation would be needed to handle the potentially thousands of operations if Neuralink use became widespread.
Musk estimated that installing the device would take around an hour, with patients able to leave the hospital in the same day without general anaesthetic.
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Founded in 2017, Neuralink aims to allow people to control machines using their minds. Its initial focus is on patients with severe neurological conditions, such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries.
The technology could allow people to control prosthetic limbs by connecting their brains remotely to the devices, via the Neuralink device.
Musk demonstrated that the device can accurately predict the position of joints when moving limbs, meaning it can theoretically influence large scale body movement. Furthermore, with the capacity to run two devices that can interact remotely, one Neuralink could be installed in the brain of a person with a spinal injury and another on the opposite side of the break. This would bypass the damaged area and allow the brain to send signals to the spine via the device.
During a Q&A with Neuralink scientists, the developers noted that the device is currently being limited to the surface of the brain, where most motor control and audio and visual functions occur. However, they said that the electrodes could be installed further into the brain, reaching parts that influence mental health and helping treat conditions such as depression, anxiety and addiction.
However, Musk’s long-term goal is to create an age of “super human cognition” in order for humans to successfully navigate the transition to AI.
In previous trials, the company was able to get a monkey to control a computer using its brain.
The company applied to start human trials in 2019. Musk said that the company had received Breakthrough Device Designation from the US’s FDA in July and is currently preparing for its first human trials.