Elon Musk's Neuralink and its Functionalities

Nov 09, 2020
5 min read
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Neuralink is Elon Musk's neuroscience startup, which has developed a coin-sized computer chip that can be implanted in the human brain to cure neurological conditions like Alzheimer's, dementia, and spinal cord injuries and ultimately fuse humankind with artificial intelligence. The Neuralink is a wireless implant, unlike any other neural implants.

Before understanding Neuralink further, let's understand the nervous system, neurons, neurotransmitters, and functionality of neurons to further understand the functionality of neural implants and Neuralink.

Our nervous system is divided into three main parts. They are central nervous system (CNS), peripheral nervous system (PNS), and autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The CNS consists of the brain and spinal cord. The PNS consists of nerves and ganglia that connect to the CNS. The ANS consists of the nerves which connect the involuntary organs like the heart, stomach and lungs.

The CNS is responsible for the integration of sensory information and responding to it. The primary function of the PNS is to connect CNS to every part of the body. The main function of the ANS is to regulate the function of internal organs.

What are neurons and how do they work?

The nervous system is made up of nerve cells called neurons. They communicate with each other by nerve endings called synapses. They use neurotransmitters to pass on the electric signal from one neuron to another neuron or one neuron to an effector cell. A myelin sheath protects the neurons.

What are neural implants?

A neural implant is an electrode placed inside the brain and is connected to a neurostimulator implanted on the chest or abdomen. This neurostimulator generates electric impulses that are transmitted to the electrodes placed deep in the brain to activate the targeted area of brain cells.

What are the uses of neural implants?

Neural implants are used to treat essential tremors of hands, legs, trunk, voice and head; multiple sclerosis, intractable pain, dystonia, and other psychiatric conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, and depression that does not respond to medicines.

Elon Musk's Neuralink is also a neural implant, but it is advanced and computerized. It does not need external stimulators. It is a coin-sized computer chip. Elon Musk's Neuralink was implanted in a pig's brain named Gertrude for two months. Neuralink proved to be efficient in curing human disease with conventional implants.

Neuralink helps to cure neurological conditions like Alzheimer's disease, dementia, spinal cord injuries and fuse humans with artificial intelligence. The first prototype in a person may take some time, as getting federal approval is difficult. But it is being tested on a monkey and the monkey was able to control a computer with his brain.

Threads that are finer and measuring in microns are inserted into areas of the brain that control movement. There are many electrodes in each thread that connect them to the Neuralink. These implantable devices process, stimulate, and transmit neural signals.

The Neuralink app will help you control your iOS device, keyboard, and mouse directly with your brain's activity, just by thinking about it. The Neuralink app would guide you through exercises that teach you to control your device. FDA does not yet approve these. So, they are not available in the market. You will be able to control devices with Bluetooth connectivity, such as any mouse or keyboard, and experience unmediated reality and high fidelity.

Neuralink builds a fully integrated brain machine interface (BMI) system. It is also called a brain computer interface (BCI). BMI technology enables a computer or other digital device to communicate directly with the brain. This helps a person with paralysis control a computer mouse or keyboard from the information read out from the brain. It also helps to write information into the brain. This helps to restore brain functions such as a sense of touch. The goal is to develop a system with at least two orders of magnitude and more communication channels (electrodes) than current clinically-approved devices. The safety measurements have to be improved. It must have full wireless communication through the skin. It should be ready for the patients to take home and use it on their own. Such features are in development stage. It will take time to implement all these features.

What are the Challenges Involved in Making a Scalable BMI?

The technology used in Neuralink is built on decades of BMI research, including several ongoing studies with human participants. The BMI systems used in these studies have only a few hundred electrodes with connectors that pass through the skin. Their use requires laboratory equipment and personnel. The challenge is to scale up the number of electrodes and build a safe and effective clinical system to take home and operate by themselves. Recent developments in engineering in this field and new technologies developed by Neuralink pave the way for progress.

What are the Key Technical Hurdles?

These are the key technical hurdles:

Electrodes

To optimize the compatibility of electrodes in Neuralink, they are being microfabricated out of thin film metals and polymers to match the neighboring neurons' size and as flexible as possible. But the challenge is that threads should resist corrosion from fluid in the tissue and should have sufficient surface area to allow stimulation. The new microfabrication processes and advances made in materials science will help to combat these challenges. It also includes the process of integrating corrosion-resistant adhesion layers to the threads and rough electrode materials that increase their effective surface area without increasing their size.

Chips

Developing chips to meet real-time neural information requirements is a challenge as Neuralink needs to convert the small electrical signals recorded by each electrode into real-time neural information. As the neural signals in the brain are in microvolts, Neuralink must have high-performance signal amplifiers and digitizers. As the number of electrodes increases, the raw digital signals become too much information to upload with low power devices. To improve Neuralink, we require on-chip, real-time identification and characterization of neural spikes.

Hermetic Packaging

The Neuralink has to be protected from the fluid and salts that bathe the surrounding tissue. Developing a water-proof enclosure can be challenging. It is even harder to build an enclosure from biocompatible materials, replace the skull structurally, and allow over 1,000 electrical channels to pass through it. Developing innovative techniques to build and seal each major component of the package helps to meet this challenge.

Neurosurgery

The threads used in Neuralink are too fine to be handled by hand. To safely place it inside the brain, we have to develop a new kind of surgical robot. We are innovating on robot design, imaging systems, and software to build a robot that can precisely and efficiently insert many threads through a single 8-mm skull opening while avoiding blood vessels on the surface of the brain.

Neural Decoding

The neural spikes have a lot of information. This information has to be decoded to control a computer. We have designed computer algorithms to control a virtual computer mouse from the activity of hundreds of neurons. Our devices will be able to connect to more neurons to provide more precise and naturalistic control. This will help to include additional virtual devices such as a keyboard and game controller. This can be accomplished with advances in statistics and algorithm design. The challenge is to design and develop adaptive algorithms that maintain reliable and robust performance while improving over time to include addition of new capabilities.