Neuralink wants to use a robot to apply thousands of flexible electrodes to the brain

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Neuralink wants to implant up to 3000 flexible electrodes deep in the human brain by means of a robot. The company founded by Elon Musk in 2016 has presented its progress so far. It should primarily help with disorders.

By applying a lot of thin wires, communication between the brain and a computer has to be established. Such a neural lace scenario has been tested by Neuralink on rats with 1500 electrodes inserted, which is about fifteen times better than what is now possible with somewhat similar existing systems in humans. The company hopes to begin working with human subjects from the second quarter of next year.

The aim is initially to insert brain implants into the brains of, for example, paralyzed people, and to enable them to operate computers and telephones. It should also be able to lead to the restoration of speech, sight and hearing. Ultimately, according to Musk, it must be further developed so that it leads to a ‘symbiosis with artificial intelligence’, he said during the presentation. In his view, a module should be placed behind a person’s ear that wirelessly receives information from the brain. Musk argues that the chip in use now is capable of providing 10,000 electrodes with read and write capability, which he says is 1,000 times better than the best contemporary brain interface used in fighting Parkinson’s.

On the left the size of the flexible electrodes and next to it the robot that has to insert the flexible electrodes into the brain.

Neuralink argues that none of the current, existing technologies fits the goal of achieving a direct way to read brain activity in a way that is minimally taxing on the subject. To this end, the flexible wires are very thin, with a thickness of 4 to 6 m, about a quarter of a human hair. These must be inserted automatically by a machine. For the time being, this still has to be done by drilling into the skull, as if it were regular brain surgery, but scientists at Neuralink hope that this can be done in the future by means of a laser drill. Max Hodak, the director of Neuralink, tells The New York Times that the biggest problem with using a mechanical drill is vibration.

A sensor device with a USB-C connection for power and data. The device contains twelve chips that can process a total of 3072 data channels.

The robot that has to insert the electrodes can be regarded as a kind of sewing machine that, by means of computer vision, must be able to avoid the blood vessels at the top of the brain when applying the many electrodes. The electrodes are inserted directly into the brain, but not into nerve cells. According to Hodak, this was chosen because it would be the only way to read the necessary information, which involves peaks of neural activity.

Neuralink’s technique involves inserting a bundle of electrodes into which are insulated conductive wires connecting a chain of sensors. Terry Sejnowski, a professor at the US Salk Institute for Biological Studies, says Neuralink has yet to prove that the wires’ insulation can last for long periods of time in the human brain, since this organ contains a saline solution that attacks plastic.

During the presentation, Elon Musk indicated that the presentation was mainly intended to recruit more people. Neuralink now has 90 employees and has received $158 million in investments. More than two years ago it became clear that Musk had founded such a company. According to The Wall Street Journal, specialists were then hired in the field of flexible electrodes and their implantation, and controlling movement through the brain. Musk said in an interview that an actual ‘partial-brain interface’ is still about five years away. In a white paper, Elon Musk and Neuralink detailed their vision and progress.

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