Elon Musk’s Neuralink — A Sci-Fi Dream or the Next Big Thing in Brain Implants?

By Sheeva Azma

Being able to control your brain via a computer is the stuff of sci-fi movies — or is it?  With Neuralink, Elon Musk seeks to bring our science fiction dreams to life.  However, Neuralink has a long road ahead.

Update, 8/30/2020: To read an overview of the Neuralink in Spanish at the Spanish National Research Council, please click here.

elon musk talking at neuralink demo
Elon Musk unveiling the Neuralink at the live-streamed event on August 28, 2020.  Musk is standing next to the surgery robot that will be used to implant the brain device.

As computer technology improves, people continue in the seemingly futuristic quest of being able to use computers to power the human brain.  In reality, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), sometimes also called brain-machine interfaces, have been around since the 1970s.  The term “brain-computer interface” itself was coined in a 1973 paper by University of California – Los Angeles professor Jacques Vidal called “Toward Direct Brain-Computer Communication.”

Neuralink, launched in 2016, is a BCI developed by entrepreneur Elon Musk.  The Neuralink represents another state-of-the-art endeavor in Musk’s business portfolio, which already includes aerospace, financial technology, and tech companies SpaceX, PayPal, and Tesla, respectively.

Neuralink demonstrated the progress on their device, which is being prepared for human clinical trials, in a livestream on August 28, 2020.

Elon Musk’s Neuralink represents another endeavor in the field of BCI. Read on to learn more about the Neuralink demo, as well as to gain insight into scientists’ reactions to the unveiling of this new technology.

Developing A Next-Generation Brain-Computer Interface

A brain-computer interface (BCI), sometimes called a brain-machine interface is, perhaps as you’d expect, a computer that interacts directly with the brain. BCIs measure real-time patterns of brain activity and try to decode them. Another function of BCIs is to directly control brain activity.  This could be useful, for example, for someone who is paralyzed, as the BCI could directly interface with their limbs, providing the electrical stimulation needed to facilitate movement.

Decoding the brain’s messages to drive brain function remains the most challenging part of this endeavor — as Andrew Moore, Dean of CMU’s School of Computer Science told Carnegie Mellon News, “Extracting the brain’s secret algorithms … is extremely ambitious … It’s the equivalent of a moonshot.”

Extracting the brain’s secret algorithms … is extremely ambitious … it’s the equivalent of a moonshot.

What is Neuralink?

The goal of Neuralink, as Reuters recently wrote, is to “implant wireless brain-computer interfaces that include thousands of electrodes in the most complex human organ to help cure neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, dementia and spinal cord injuries and ultimately fuse humanity with artificial intelligence.”

Neuralink’s goal is to implant a wireless brain-computer interface into the brain to cure things like Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury, and “fuse humanity with artificial intelligence.”

Musk reiterated these goals at the event — with a focus on solving important brain and spine problems with a seamlessly implanted device. Memory loss, stroke, brain damage, addiction, mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, sensory problems such as hearing loss, and more — “these can all be solved with an implantable Neuralink,” Musk said. “The neurons are like wiring. You kind of need an electronic thing to solve an electronic problem.”

Before Neuralink, We Had Brain Imaging

How the human brain works has always been a mystery. Animal studies can shed light on analogous neural processes, but it’s clear that human and animal brains may be similar, but they are not the same. That’s why the true origins of BCI may go back to the development of brain imaging techniques that look at the human brain’s functions. 

Human brain imaging techniques include functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography (EEG), and magnetoencephalography (MEG): 

  • The oldest of these, EEG, involves recording electrical potentials, typically from the surface of the scalp.  EEG was invented in 1929 by a German doctor named Hans Berger. 
  • MEG, a method similar to EEG which noninvasively measures magnetic fields arising from the brain’s cells, was invented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by David Cohen in the early 1970s
  • fMRI, a brain imaging method which measures brain activation by way of looking at the flow of oxygenated blood in the brain (a technique known as BOLD fMRI), was initially developed in 1990 by Seiji Ogawa, a Japanese researcher.

It’s unethical to do experiments directly on human brains, so these noninvasive imaging methods enabled researchers to learn more about the human brain’s structure and function to yield new insights which could be applied to modulating or controlling brain function, such as via the Neuralink.

That’s not to say that scientists have not been recording directly from the brain’s cells — it’s just very difficult to do so.  For decades, researchers seeking to directly probe neural activity have been limited to intracranial EEG studies — electrodes implanted into the brains of epilepsy patients going in for surgery — who needed the EEG for the surgery to be done properly. While not specifically discussed at the Neuralink demo, it’s possible that the success of the product in humans may eventually lend itself to a new generation of exciting human research studies in a variety of neuropsychiatric populations.

What Happened at Elon Musk’s Neuralink Demo?

The event, which started about 40 minutes late, commenced with Elon Musk discussing the Neuralink, how it is implanted in the brain, and the high-tech device’s specifications.

After this intro, Musk demo’d the Neuralink by bringing out several pigs: one who had not been implanted with the device, one who had the device implanted then removed, a third pig who had the implant, and a fourth pig who had two implants.  While the pig that had the device implanted was a bit shy, all pigs seemed happy and munched on food while Musk talked. 

elon musk and pigs at neuralink demo
Elon Musk and pigs at the Neuralink Demo live-stream on August 28, 2020.

The key point Musk made here with the live pig demo was that the implant could be implanted and then taken out without any problems — despite surgeries, all pigs were happy and healthy, he noted.  It would have been nice to have seen video of the implantation process, or brain imaging of the location of the Neuralink, but neither of those things were mentioned at the Neuralink livestream event.

happy pig at neuralink demo
A happy pig who had not received the implant at the Neuralink livestream event on August 28, 2020.
explorative pig and its neural spikes at neuralink demo
The Neuralink implanted in this pig’s brain was able to record activity of sensory neurons in the pig’s snout as she explored a surface.

Afterwards, there was a question and answer session with Musk and the Neuralink developers — surgeons, neuroscientists, and engineers alike.  The entire event lasted slightly more than an hour.  While the goal of the livestream, as Musk said, was to recruit new people for the company, it was also very informational in nature.

What Can the Neuralink Do? 

The Neuralink, as Musk discussed on the livestream event, is a small device that is surgically implanted in the brain using a special surgery robot.  The Neuralink has the ability to both read brain activity directly from neurons, as well as electrically stimulate groups of neurons.  Currently at version 0.09, the Neuralink obtained FDA Breakthrough authorization in July 2020 and is preparing for the first human implantation soon.

“It’s like a FitBit in your skull with tiny wires,” Musk said.  One would not be able to see the device at all – after the implantation surgery, the Neuralink user would have a small scar under their hair and the device would be implanted in their brain.  The device would also use many of the same technologies as smartphones, and would be charged same way you charge a smartwatch or a phone: use it all day, charge at night, and have full functionality.  The system would be completely seamless and wireless.

Elon Musk: [The Neuralink] is like a FitBit in your skull with tiny wires.

The Neuralink is implanted 3 to 4 mm into the brain’s cortex — the topmost layer of our brain that is responsible for things like sensory and motor processing as well as cognition and reasoning. 

The Neuralink goes one step further than brain imaging.  The Neuralink seeks to not only directly measure brain activity via measuring the electrical activity of individual brain cells, but also to control this electrical activity of the brain and nervous system in general.  One Neuralink electrode can directly influence 1,000 or 10,000 neurons – which can indirectly influence millions of neurons.

Brain activity can be measured and analyzed in the device, or it can be send to a server via a Bluetooth connection between the Neuralink and a companion smartphone app.

According to a presenter at the Summer 2020 Neuralink Progress Update, The Neuralink team is trying to make the process of data collection from the brain faster and safer and even “scalable to billions of people.”  Decoding the messages of the brain’s cells is no simple feat, but this is the goal of Neuralink.  Restoring movement and communication in patients with spinal cord injury, an area in which academic science has made a lot of progress, is a goal of the company. The goal of this work is to eventually be able to create treatments for conditions like spinal cord injury, where the nervous system’s “wiring” has been disrupted, by improving communication between nerve cells via the Neuralink.

And yes, Elon Musk joked at the live stream, you will be able to start your Tesla with the Neuralink.

Current Limitations of the Neuralink Device

Currently, Only Cortical Implantation Is Possible

A project as futuristic and ambitious as the Neuralink device is sure to encounter major challenges.  One challenge is that, presently, the device is limited to surface layers of the brain — what is called the cerebral cortex — only.  Musk stated that the Neuralink team plans to modify the robot to sew into the depths of the brain’s subcortical regions in future versions of the device.

Importantly, motor (movement) intentions and sensory information (hearing, vision, etc.) can be interfaced with via the Neuralink, so, as the presenters discussed, a variety of conditions such as blindness, paralysis, and hearing could eventually be remedied via the Neuralink.  Eventually, with a device that could be implanted subcortically, there could be additional hope for people suffering from mood disorders and addiction.  However, this would make the Neuralink apparatus bulkier, which would present a challenge for implantation, both in terms of the design of the device and the complexity of the surgery required to implant it.  For example, a subcortical device implantation would need to avoid running into the deeper vasculature of the brain, which is an added challenge.

Navigating the Biological Environment of the Brain Remains Difficult

The electrical components of the Neuralink device must last for decades in the brain, which is a corrosive environment filled with various fluids.  Neuralink’s team is custom-building everything, including the enclosure packaging needed for the implant, to surmount these different challenges.

The wiring of the implant itself is also a challenge.  Having fewer wires would be easier to implant, but adding more wires would improve the ability of the device to electrically stimulate the brain more powerfully.  The goal of the implant is to have wires of sub-micron thickness, but there is a trade off there in terms of the ability to apply current to brain regions.

Hardware Upgrades Will Require Brain Surgery

Like a true tech entrepreneur, Musk mentioned that he wishes to do regular hardware upgrades to the Neuralink.  Sadly, this would require a brain surgery each time a hardware upgrade is needed.  It will be interesting to learn more about how exactly Musk and Neurolink plan to do this.  Brain surgery, like any other kind of surgery, is extremely dangerous and so there are many risks that need to be mitigated before this idea becomes a reality.

Security

The data collected by the Neuralink may be processed on the device, or it may be uploaded to a cloud-based server.  Cloud computing will necessitate data encryption and authentication, and, as Musk explained, security is part of the design from the get-go, so that sensitive modules can be protected.

What is the Current State of Brain Implant Technology?

Brain implant research is in its relative infancy, though a lot of progress has been made.  Musk’s ambitious approach seeks to supplant existing technologies, though it remains unclear how this would be possible as no detailed discussions of human implants occurred at the livestream event.

Musk described the current state-of-the-art of brain implants — technologies such as Deep Brain Stimulation — as a “brute force” approach.  Deep Brain Stimulation or DBS is a brain implant which is FDA-approved for certain neurological disorders involving movement (for example, Parkinson’s Disease) and/or mood (for example, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder).  DBS involves implanting electrodes into the brain to stimulate brain areas to improve the neural wiring and treat these disorders.

Other technologies, like cochlear implants, are effective in stimulating the brain and restoring function for people who have experienced hearing loss.

There also are less invasive ways to modulate brain function such as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation or TMS, in which magnetic pulses are applied to the brain.

The challenges of brain implant research involve the fact that the complexity of the brain is not yet well-understood.  Initiatives like the BRAIN Initiative and the Allen Brain Project have sought to create a comprehensive map of the structure and function of the brain, but without a more nuanced knowledge, it remains unclear what the true impacts of the Neuralink technology — or any brain stimulation technology — may be.

What’s Next for Neuralink?

The first applications of Neuralink will be human clinical trials aimed at studying and treating severe spinal cord injury.  The study will enroll a small number of patients to ensure that the technology is both safe and effective.  Someone with a spinal cord injury can’t control their muscles, but, as Musk explained, the Neuralink can allow patients to think, output words, type, or control a computer or phone.

The long-term goals of the Neuralink are to sense what someone is trying to do with their limbs and provide the electrical stimulation necessary to bridge the “wiring gap.”  The long-term goal of Neuralink is to restore someone’s full range of body motion — enabling people to walk again, use their hands, arms, and legs, etc.

Musk analogized the Neuralink to a wiring analogy.  The Neuralink will help “jump over broken wires” and transmit signals over the broken wires. 

What Are Neuroscientists Saying About Neuralink?

While many expressed excitement about the Neuralink, neuroscientists remain skeptical that the device can live up to Musk’s claims.  Neuroscientists expressed doubts and identified limitations that could hinder Musk’s ambitious goals.

While many expressed excitement about the Neuralink, some neuroscientists expressed doubts, identifying limitations that could hinder Musk’s ambitious goals.

Liset M de la Prida, Principal Investigator at Laboratorio de Circuitos Neuronales at the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain, tweets at @LMPrida.  She had more questions after watching the presentation.

tweet from liset m de la prida

She noted the good and the bad.

opportunities for neuralink tweet

She also called upon the neuroscience community to team up to help unlock the mysteries of the brain and encouraged information sharing in this effort.

open science and neuralink tweet

Some neuroscientists, like Athena Akrami were intrigued and wanted access to the technology. Akrami is a neuroscientist at The Sainsbury Wellcome Centre, UCL, in London, where she leads the “Learning, Inference & Memory” laboratory.

tweet showing that scientists want to obtain access to neuralink technology

Jason Wright, a hardware engineer who works in the Bioelectronics and Biosensing Lab at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, tweets at @jsnwr. He opined that the Neuralink is far from their goal of making it to the commercial market.

tweet saying that limitations of neuralink make it far from commercialization

So, it seems what while the future of the Neuralink — and BCI in general — is promising, more work is needed before the product can be as useful as Musk hopes (that is, if such advanced technology is possible given current limitations).

“The Future’s Gonna Be Weird”

Once the Neuralink makes it to the commercial market, it is likely to be quite expensive, but the price will rapidly drop.  Musk’s goal is to make a Neuralink implantation, inclusive of surgery, “a few thousand dollars” — similar to getting LASIK … or even a new laptop.

Love it or hate it, Musk’s appetite for complex problems has led to the creation of the Neuralink.  A tech entrepreneur seeking to make inroads into brain surgery, Musk describes the future applications of Neuralink as “increasingly sounding like a Black Mirror episode.”

Said Musk: “The future’s gonna be weird.”

“The future’s gonna be weird.” — @ElonMusk

You can watch the full livestream below or by clicking here.

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