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Elon Musk’s NeuraLink applies to trial ‘brain-machine interface’

Brain-machine interface (BMI) technology shown to work in primate trial

Neuralink

In a move worthy of a science fiction plot, Elon Musk’s company NeuraLink says it will apply to start trials of a technology that would intertwine the human brain with a computer.

The brain-machine interface (BMI) technology has already been tested in a monkey that was able to control a computer with its brain, said Musk when presenting the concept yesterday.

The near-term goal is to develop ways to help people with severe neurological conditions, and he hopes to start human testing before the end of next year. At the moment, the first indication being sought is people with quadriplegic paralysis due to spinal cord injury.

NeuraLink’s BMI approach is based on thousands of flexible ‘threads’ – thinner than a hair – that would be implanted in the brain alongside neurons and monitor nerve impulses, communicating wirelessly with a device worn outside the body – just like a Bluetooth headset.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk presenting the technology

NeuraLink says the approach is orders of magnitude more sensitive than current approaches using up to 10 conventional electrodes, adding it has also developed a device to surgically implant the threads that is “as simple and automated as LASIK” – the laser surgery commonly used for vision correction – and eventually might not even need anaesthesia.

It’s also a ‘read-write’ process, said Musk, with the device capable of delivering stimuli back to the neurons via the threads and he suggested that ultimately it might be possible to create a “symbiosis with artificial intelligence” that could boost human cognition – and answer fears that humans could be left behind in an AI-enabled world.

The first devices have much more simple objectives, according to Max Hodak, NeuraLink’s president, with a focus on giving patients the ability to control their mobile devices, and redirect the output from the phone to a keyboard or mouse.

The basic concepts on offer at NeuraLink aren’t fundamentally new, and earlier research has allowed humans to control devices using brain implants. Back in 2006, for example, a paralysed man was able to play the computer game Pong using his mind.

NeuraLink is however attempting to ramp up the capabilities of the approach to allow much more sophisticated control, and also avoid some of the safety issues that affect rival approaches based on fewer, larger and more rigid electrode systems.

It remains to be seen how the FDA will respond to the proposals. For now, NeuraLink is providing as much information on the technology as it can via a pre-peer review paper hosted on the bioRxiv website.

The paper says: “While significant technological challenges must be addressed before a high-bandwidth device is suitable for clinical application, with such a device, it is plausible to imagine that a patient with spinal cord injury could dexterously control a digital mouse and keyboard.”

“When combined with rapidly improving spinal stimulation techniques, in the future this approach could conceivably restore motor function.”

Article by
Phil Taylor

18th July 2019

From: Healthcare

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