The valley startup, Neuralink, has been in the news lately following a clinical trial on monkeys gone wrong. Co-founded by Elon Musk, the company aims to develop Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs), an ambitious project, and we’ve come to expect nothing less from the billionaire business magnate. Human cognition consists of two major systems - the Limbic system processes our needs and emotions and is also the storehouse for our memories; the Cortex handles problem-solving, critical thinking, and the ability to plan. In the long run, Neuralink plans on being the third layer atop our brains allowing us to augment ourselves, ushering in the era of cyborgs (not to get too excited as it definitely won’t be the kind shown in movies and video games). In reality, this third layer already exists as mobile devices, laptops and the internet, which have become an essential part of our lives but the way we interact with these devices is a bottleneck. Think what it would be like if we were to integrate the functionality of these devices with the super-intelligent human brain. It could be revolutionary but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Neuralink has a three-step approach towards achieving its ambitions - understanding, interface, engineering.
The human brain is the most complicated organ, and extensive research programs are trying to unearth its mysteries. It is a web of communication allowing us to move, think, feel and sense. There are 86 billion neurons in our brain which send and receive information. They generally have three parts: a dendrite which receives a signal, a cell body called a soma which computes the signal, and an axon that sends a signal out. These neurons are connected through synapses and communicate via electric signals. The change in electric potential associated with the passage of an impulse along the membrane of the neurons, a.k.a ‘action potentials’, causes synapses to release neurotransmitters. These small molecules bind to receptors on dendrites, opening channels that cause current to flow across the neuron’s membrane. The idea is to place electrodes near neurons to detect action potentials. Collecting these signals from many neurons allows us to decode the information represented by these cells. In the movement-related areas of the brain, for example, neurons represent intended movements. There are neurons in the brain that carry information about everything we see, feel, touch, or think, which brings us to interfacing.
Interfacing involves mapping the network of neurons and the data it holds to computers. The answer to that is ‘The Link’ - a sealed neural implant that processes, simulates and transmits neural signals. It consists of tiny flexible neural threads containing thousands of electrodes to detect neural signals. The threads on the Link are so fine and flexible that they can’t be inserted by human hands and requires a robotic system that the neurosurgeon can use to reliably and efficiently insert these threads exactly where they need to be.
Engineering is where the technology applications come to light. The ultimate vision is a direct link between the brain and everyday technology. Still, the initial goal of our Neuralink is to help people with paralysis to regain independence through the control of computers and mobile devices. The Link is designed to give people the ability to communicate more easily via text or speech synthesis, follow their curiosity on the web, or express their creativity through photography, art, or writing apps. As the underlying technology develops, the interface between The Link and the human brain will grow in size and become more sophisticated, allowing access to more brain areas and new neural information. The technology can treat a wide range of neurological disorders, restore sensory and movement function and eventually expand how we interact with each other and the digital world.
A tiny neural implant with a wide array of applications is what Neuralink promised to deliver during its inception in 2016. Fast forward to 2022, the company has come under fire after the disastrous clinical trial consisting of 23 monkey test subjects, of which 15 are now dead. The company has also been accused of animal cruelty. Neuralink’s brain chips were implanted in monkeys during tests at the University of California, Davis, from 2017 to 2020, which did not bear fruitful results. In one extreme case, a monkey was allegedly found missing some of its fingers and toes “possibly from self-mutilation or some other unspecified trauma”. “Pretty much every single monkey that had had implants put in their head suffered from pretty debilitating health effects,” Jeremy Beckham from PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) told the New York Post, adding that “they were, frankly, maiming and killing the animals.”
The trial’s outcome is a significant setback for the company, but it is still in its early days. While the trial result was very unfortunate, such studies are vital for companies such as Neuralink. Some of its other test implants in animals have shown varying degrees of success and are worth looking at - Monkey MindPong. What Neuralink is proposing isn’t entirely new; primitive BMIs have been around since the 1950s, but what Neuralink is trying can help it achieve its complete form and become a natural extension to the human brain.