After testing its device on animals, the start-up created by Elon Musk prepares to conduct human trials with the aim of helping sick people to then offer its device to healthy subjects.
With the Neuralink project, Elon Musk intends to increase the capacities of our brains, to treat people with disabilities, depression or addictions.
What is Neuralink’s project?
Last December, at the summit of the Council of CEOs of the wall street journalElon Musk spoke about Neuralink’s plans for 2022. Founded in 2016 by the businessman, this company dedicated to neurotechnology designs a neural implant that is supposed to allow communication between the brain and a computer or digital device. In other words, it will be a brain-computer interface that should have various applications. To begin with, the company wants to develop this device for paralyzed people. Its primary objective is to help them regain their autonomy, by controlling a computer or a digital device.
Neuralink has already tested its technology on animals. In 2021, she also published a video in which a monkey equipped with the implant was able to play the video game Pong by thought. “We hope to have this in our first humans, who will be people with severe spinal cord injuries”, then declared Elon Musk. The company now wants to test its device on humans this year.
In summary, Neuralink wants to develop a direct interface between the brain and the machine. An implant the size of a coin, connected to a thousand electrodes 20 times thinner than a hair. This implant has the same thickness as the cranial box: it can be inserted like a puzzle piece. It recharges wirelessly at night, by induction, thanks to a device placed under the pillow. The electrodes, they plunge into the cerebral cortex and the whole is connected to computers via Bluetooth. “It’s like having a connected watch in your skull,” says Elon Musk.
Caring for the paralyzed, blind or deaf
So far, no human being has tested this device. Neuralink’s first three guinea pigs are sows: Joyce, Dorothy, and Gertrude. Don’t mind, the human brain is very similar to that of the pig. The results are still timid. We visualize cerebral activity, but we have also linked neural impulses with the movement of the four legs: this is essential if we want to enable paralytics to walk again. At first, thinking of a movement could transmit impulses directly to robot prostheses.
But Elon Musk is never satisfied with half progress : he wants to go further. He wants to use a second implant at the base of the spine, where the nerve connections are interrupted, and create a neural shunt, a patch in other words. In the long term, it would then be possible to fully restore movement and the paralytic could walk again.
On the same principle, by capturing the brain impulses that transmit visual stimuli from the eyes to the brain, one or more cameras can be connected to it. Same for sounds.
Fight against depression, insomnia or addictions
And why limit yourself to physical problems? Neuralink aims to cure depression, insomnia, extreme pain, addictions and even to eliminate fear! This is where the project begins to wander a bit. It’s about recording your own memories to play them intact and at will or transfer them to a new body.
But is this project really realistic? Scientists believe that we are quite close to what already exists, but that going so far and so fast is quite optimistic. Right now, we’re just at the sow brain activity stage. Otherwise, many questions still remain unanswered: what material to use for micro-electrodes which are supposed to remain intact in the brain for decades? And how to secure the data so as not to have the neurons hacked?
Other criticisms remain, to which the start-up reacted by claiming that “These accusations come from people who oppose any use of animals in research”while recalling that it is mandatory to test medical devices and treatments on animals before conducting trials on humans. In her press release, she further explains that the operations were, among other things, carried out on monkeys “in terminal procedure”. They were thus about to be euthanized because of poor health conditions pre-existing the Neuralink experiments.