Neuralink, one of Elon Musk’s newest ventures, was founded in 2016 but little has been known about the startup other than that it would somehow actualize Musk’s vision of a revolutionary implantable brain device. During a webcast last week, Musk and his team unveiled a bit more about what the company has been up to, including a live demo involving a trio of pigs.
The Neuralink implant, known as the “Link,” is essentially a miniaturized version of a deep brain stimulator. It’s a coin-sized device with a bundle of tiny wires, each five times thinner than a strand of human hair, protruding from it. The wires are meant to be embedded in the cortical surface of the brain, able to record continuously record 1024 channels of neural signals at the same time. The Link contains an inductively-rechargeable battery that lasts all day, a 6-axis inertial measurement unit to track head position and movement, additional sensors to measure things like temperature and pressure, and a Bluetooth Low Energy antenna to connect the implant with an app on the wearer’s smartphone.
Musk described the Link as a “Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires” and frequently alluded to terminology associated with computers.
Unlike most existing deep brain stimulation devices, which are implanted near the chest and rely on electrode leads to reach the brain, the Link is placed through the skull. Musk claims that the device could be implanted in less than an hour in an outpatient setting without the need for general anesthesia. And because of the less-invasive nature of the device, it could potentially be removed or “upgraded” easily.
Alongside the implant itself, Musk showed a prototype of the surgical robot that would automate much of the implantation procedure. It features imaging technology that will help in avoiding blood vessels as the wires are embedded in the brain to reduce bleeding. Two-photon microscopy also helps to confirm that the device is properly stimulating, or “writing” the brain when signals are sent through the wires.
Musk concluded the presentation by introducing a few of Neuralink’s porcine employees: one pig did not have an implant, one received an implant two months ago, and one had previously received an implant. All three were actively scurrying around their pens. As “Gertrude,” the pig with the implant, happily sniffed around her pen, a sound could be heard, which indicated when areas of the brain associated with Gertrude’s snout were firing, as measured by the Neuralink device. Musk also shared the results of a study in which the Link was able to accurately predict the location of a pig’s limbs in real-time as it was walking on a treadmill.
It was interesting to note that while the main goal of Neuralink is to address spine and brain problems, such as memory loss, blindness, and paralysis, the “wishlist” of several members of the team (including Musk) spanned from autism treatment to a faster, non-linguistic method of communication, to a symbiosis of humans with AI. In response to a question via Twitter about applications, Musk and another engineer gave a tongue-in-cheek answer that Neuralink “could be used in gaming 100%”.
Neuralink received Breakthrough Device Designation from the FDA in July, and the company is planning on conducting its first clinical trials soon on those with spinal cord injuries. But it has a ways to go in developing the implant and surgical robot, as well as passing through clinical trials in which Musk claims the company will “significantly exceed FDA guidelines” to verify safety. They’ve yet to determine the population and disease states that would best benefit from Neuralink technology, but those may be identified relatively quickly through trials and a successful entry to market could make the Link a game changer in neural engineering.
Take a look at the full webcast below:
More info: Neuralink website