Brain-computer devices for neurological disorders

Elon Musk’s brain-machine technology start-up fires up a new category of medical device.

Between taking over Twitter, mainstreaming electric cars and prepping the first mission to Mars, Elon Musk has been introducing a cast of characters that includes a sewing-machine-like robot neurologic surgeon, Gertrude, a pig with a brain implant, and Pager (above), a monkey who plays the video game classic Pong with his mind.

These demonstrations for Neuralink, Musk’s brain-machine interface company, may raise questions, but they certainly offer a glimpse at a promising direction for future life-changing medical technologies for people with spinal cord injuries, vision loss and neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

“You need an electrical thing to solve an electrical problem,” Musk said during the livestreamed demonstration with Gertrude, reframing nervous system dynamics as hardware. 

Neuralink’s first device consists of a battery, processing chip, bluetooth radio and about 1,000 electrode contacts, all wrapped in a packet the size of five stacked US quarters (or UK 10 pence coins). Electrodes measuring a tenth the diameter of a human hair are implanted at shallow depths in the brain by the surgical robot for precision and to reduce the risk of brain tissue damage.
With Gertrude’s every sniff, the livestream showed a spike in her brain’s electrical activity. Deep learning AI will be critical for identifying patterns in the neural signals to connect the dots in the data for humans to control computers, prosthetic limbs and other machines using only thoughts. Musk has said the ultimate goal is to create a neural implant that can sync the brain to AI to make controlling various machines instant. Neuralink is looking to expand tests beyond rats and monkeys to human volunteers once it obtains US Food and Drug Administration approval.

You need an electrical thing to solve an electrical problem

Elon Musk

The technology faces many challenges. There are issues with safety – it’s invasive, there’s a risk of infection and how will the device transmit data without generating heat. It’s also fraught with questions about responsible use – would-be cyborgs are already tweeting Musk about the possibilities for gamers.
Some form of the technology seems inevitable and the hype around Neuralink will spur on other researchers who have been experimenting with brain-computer interfaces for more than 15 years.  One of the most advanced is the Braingate consortium who have been working with paralysed people and those with neurological diseases helping them operate tablets, type eight words a minute and control prosthetic limbs with their thoughts. After successful human tests in Australia, Synchron, another Neuralink competitor, obtained FDA approval in 2021 for human trials of a permanently implanted chip in the motor cortex for treatment in severely paralysed patients so they can control digital devices. One patient in Australia with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a nervous system disease, is using Synchron’s “Switch” device to control his iPad.

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