Silicon Valley star Elon Musk has once again become the focus of the tech world. This time, his neuroscience company Neuralink announced an important result since its establishment – a scalable high-bandwidth brain-computer interface system. The system consists of a sewing machine-like robot and wires that are only 4 to 6 microns thick, thinner than a human hair. Neuralink’s goal is to implant brain-computer interface devices in paralyzed patients, allowing them to use their brains to control phones or computers.

Silicon Valley star Elon Musk has once again become the focus of the tech world. This time, his neuroscience company Neuralink announced an important result since its establishment – a scalable high-bandwidth brain-computer interface system. The system consists of a sewing machine-like robot and wires that are only 4 to 6 microns thick, thinner than a human hair. Neuralink’s goal is to implant brain-computer interface devices in paralyzed patients, allowing them to use their brains to control phones or computers.

Musk claimed that the setup would be a significant improvement over the current state of the art. The device has 1,000 times as many electrodes connected to the brain as the FDA-approved device for Parkinson’s patients. He hopes that in the future, the process of implanting a brain-computer interface chip can be as simple as excimer laser surgery in ophthalmology.

Neuralink will seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin clinical trials in humans as early as 2020.

Brains control machines? The brain-computer interface system is officially launched!

sewing robot

Flexible wires and sewing robots

On July 16, at a public event in San Francisco, Musk brought the latest breakthroughs in the field of brain computer science from neuroscience company Neuralink. For this important release, Neuralink made a special announcement on Twitter 6 days ago, saying that the company will announce the results of nearly two years of work on Tuesday.

The first to be announced is Neuralink’s special-purpose brain-computer interface system, a flexible wire (thread) connected by tiny electrodes or sensors. The wires, which are only 4 to 6 microns wide, are said to do less damage to the brain and transmit more data. The Neuralink BCI system has a total of 3,072 electrodes spread over about 100 flexible wires, each of which is individually inserted into the mouse’s brain by a custom-made, sewing-machine-like surgical robot.

To precisely implant such tiny wires into the brain, Neuralink has developed a companion neurosurgery robotic system. We can think of it as a “sewing machine” that, with the help of high-end optical equipment, “observes” four tiny holes with a diameter of 8 mm artificially created in the skull, and “precisely” implants wires into the brain.

In addition, Neuralink also customized a tiny chip that can transmit data through a USB-C wired connection.

Brains control machines? The brain-computer interface system is officially launched!

A fully implantable neural interface connects to the brain via thin wires.

According to Neuralink, the device can monitor the activity of more than 1,000 neurons at a time. Also, the elements are strong enough to pass through brain tissue. Meanwhile, with the help of lenses and computer vision software, the robot can avoid hitting blood vessels, reducing brain damage and scar tissue formation.

The current procedure involves drilling holes in the skull, but Neuralink scientists told The New York Times that in the future, they hope to use laser technology to create the holes needed for surgery.

19 animal experiments have been completed, and human clinical trials will begin as early as 2020

According to a white paper released by Neuralink on July 16, the system has been tested on mice. The researchers completed at least 19 surgeries and successfully placed the wires in 87 percent of the cases.

Musk revealed in the question-and-answer session that Neuralink also worked with scientists at the University of California, Davis, to conduct experiments on monkeys. Primates have been found to be able to control computers through their brains, he said.

Neuralink plans to apply for FDA approval for a version of its device, with a view to beginning human clinical trials as early as 2020, Dr. Matthew McDougall, chief of neurosurgery at Neuralink, told The Guardian. This version of the device is “only for patients with severe untreated disease.” The first clinical trial will target people who have been completely paralyzed by upper spinal cord injuries and will see four 8mm holes drilled in the patient’s brain for a total of four Neuralink implants. These implants record brain activity, sending brain signals to a small device implanted behind the ear. The device is capable of transferring data to a computer.

Brains control machines? The brain-computer interface system is officially launched!

Neuralink’s first brain-computer interface renderings

Max Hodak, co-founder and president of Neuralink, said the first operation will be performed under general anesthesia, but he hopes local anesthesia will be used in the future.

Brain-computer interface technology and Neuralink

Brain-computer interface refers to connecting the brain with external devices in some form to realize the conversion between brain wave signals and related command signals. This approach has been proven to control external mechanical devices.

Brain-computer interfaces are mainly divided into two forms: invasive and non-invasive. Invasive brain-computer interface systems require surgically implanted chips and electrodes in the brain. This method of operation requires a great deal of medical knowledge and can usually only be applied to a small number of clinical cases.

Musk’s launch this time is an intrusive system. This means that the system will require a craniotomy during implantation, which may pose a risk of brain infection.

Brains control machines? The brain-computer interface system is officially launched!

Neuralink robotic system for inserting electrodes into the brain

In terms of non-invasive brain-computer interface, in July 2019, Carnegie Mellon University cooperated with the University of Minnesota and achieved a breakthrough in the field of brain-computer interface. Researchers have developed a new type of brain-computer interface using non-invasive neuroimaging techniques and machine learning techniques. In the experiments, human subjects using the novel brain-computer interface noninvasively controlled a robotic arm that followed a cursor on a computer screen in a smooth, continuous path. The research team plans to conduct clinical trials in the near future.

In addition to the invasive versus non-invasive path battle, there are some ethical issues with brain-computer interface technology. Some experts believe that “human beings should be cautious” about brain-computer interface technology.

Neuralink, with brain-computer interface as its main research direction, was founded in 2017, bringing together a group of neuroscientists from top universities. The company’s goal is to connect the human brain with artificial intelligence software.

Neuralink has not been exposed much in the media, and it seems quite mysterious. At present, Neuralink has about 100 people and has raised more than $150 million in total. Among them, co-founder Musk contributed at least $100 million.

In May 2019, Neuralink closed a $51 million funding round.

It is reported that one purpose of Musk’s announcement of the company’s important progress is to continue to recruit talents for the company.

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