First Look at Neuralink: Like Putting a Phone in Your Brain

Neuralink Live Demonstration Shows the Potential and Infancy of the Link Device

From the Neuralink headquarters, Elon Musk and the team at Neuralink demonstrated a working version of their “version 0.9” Link device in a presentation that showed off the current hardware, the surgical implant process, and the data it can currently collect. According to Musk, the presentation was designed primarily to promote recruitment at Neuralink, looking to convince good people to work at Neuralink.

Musk’s stated goal for Neuralink is to solve important brain and spine problems. By creating a generalized brain device that is reliable and affordable, the plan is to be able to treat any neurological problem that someone might have during their life, from hearing loss to memory loss to depression and anxiety. Because senses consist of electrical signals sent by neurons to your brain, if the Neuralink can correct those signals, it can can potentially solve any brain problem.

What is the device?

The v0.9 “Link” device demonstrated is a coin-sized computing device which is designed to be implanted into the wearer’s head – replacing a piece of the skull. The Link is equipped with sensors found in most of today’s cell phones and wearable devices such as inertial measurement, temperature and pressure sensors. It’s equipped with a battery designed to last a full day that can be charged wirelessly (through induction) to allow easy recharging at night while the wearer is asleep.

Attached to the circular part of the devices are many electrodes called threads that can both send signals to neurons in the brain and read the electrical signals sent by the neurons. Each thread is 1/20th the diameter of a single strand of hair. As Musk described it, “In a lot of ways, it’s kind of like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires.”

How is it installed?

By a surgical robot, of course. The robot was also on display, and has been used to implant the Link device in pigs. Eventually the the robot will be used for the entire surgical process once it is approved for human use. That process consists of first removing the skull fragment, then installing the electrodes into the brain. The robot is used because of the precision required to install the threads into the correct location. When installed with that level of precision, no bleeding in the brain occurs because all blood vessels are avoided. This is made possible by imaging taken of the brain, which the robot uses to guide its installation of the threads.

Currently the threads can only be attached to the cortical surface (outer layer of the brain), but there are plans to be able to implant the threads at arbitrary depths. Once the threads are placed, the device is implanted and the wound is super glued shut.  The surgery itself is not long. Musk said that patients will be able to leave the hospital the same day, and if the device is implanted underneath the patient’s hair, it will not be visible.

The device was approved as a breakthrough technology by the FDA in July, and according to Musk, the device will significantly exceed the FDA’s safety standards. Human trials are pending FDA approvals and further safety testing.

What does the device do?

By reading and writing electrical signals into the brain, the Link is able to detect the spike of electrical activity created by neurons as well as induce them to fire. These neuronal spikes are the primary method of communication for neurons in the brain, so by reading them and creating them, the Link can decipher what the brain is doing, and make it do things through stimulation.

In his “Three Little Pigs” demo, Musk showed one pig without the device implanted, a second with the device implanted, and a third which had the device implanted then removed (to demonstrate that it’s safe to remove permanently or upgrade). There was no discernible difference between the pigs, except for data that was being transmitted by the pig with the Link implanted. The neuronal spikes were displayed on a graph in real-time as the pig walked around its pen and were translated into beeps that would grow louder and faster as the pig interacted with the environment with its snout.

A recorded demo showed that when the Link was used to capture electrical activity from a pig walking on a treadmill, it was possible to decipher the pigs movements with a high level of accuracy.

Where is the technology headed?

The initial treatment targets of the team are restoring movement and communication in spinal cord injury patients. According to Musk, the first version of the device installed only in the outer layer of the cortical surface, should be able to to solve blindness, hearing loss and paralysis.

It will eventually be possible to connect the device to an app on the wearer’s smartphone and interface with the device for monitoring health data and sending signals, even possibly playing music directly into your brain. During the Q&A portion of the event, the topic of gaming came up, and the team stated their functional target was to allow a quadriplegic to play StarCraft.  When asked if the Link could be used to summon a Tesla with a thought, Musk answered yes unequivocally, but there’s no telling when that will actually be possible.

The first version of the device will be expensive, but Musk hopes to reduce the cost to several thousand dollars inclusive of surgery to be as affordable as LASIK surgery.

You can watch the official live stream of the event to learn more.

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