Neuralink: The Next Big Thing in Brain Research

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With the aid of his brain implant, Sake the monkey has improved his dexterity and speed when utilising a mouse pointer.

Gives us an update on the company's advancements in brain-computer interfaces. The update includes new developments such as telepathic typing from monkeys, a surgical robot, and early progress towards restoring sight in the blind and movement and sensation in paraplegics. Although it's been 18 months since the company demonstrated a telepathic game of monkey pong, it's clear that progress has been steady rather than revolutionary. 

During a live-streamed event, Neuralink's co-founder Elon Musk and the company's team showcased new video footage of a monkey named Sake, who has been implanted with a brain-computer interface. The footage showed Sake quickly and accurately manipulating a mouse pointer on a screen, by clicking on highlighted letters and words, to spell out words and phrases nominated by the researchers. This demonstration highlights the potential of Neuralink's technology in brain research and its ability to enable communication between the brain and computers.

The Neuralink team also introduced the "N1" implant, which is a small device about the size of a US quarter, designed to replace a section of the skull in the recipient, making it almost invisible under the skin. The device is fully wireless, including charging, and it enables 1,024 channels of two-way communication between the brain and the chip through 64 tiny, flexible needle probes that are inserted with precision into the brain tissue at specific points. 

The whole neuralink implant will be hidden under the skin.

This implant opens new possibilities in the field of brain-computer interfaces, the team also showcased the surgical robot "R1" which is used to implant the device. This robot is capable of maneuvering the tiny threads, which are only a few blood cells wide, and inserting them reliably into a moving brain while avoiding vital blood vessels. DJ Seo, the company's VP of Implant said, "It's quite good at doing this reliably".

Seo is describing a new technology developed by his company, which involves the use of small probes that can be inserted into the brain to help people with paralysis regain their digital freedom. The probes are designed to target specific brain areas and can be inserted quickly and easily, with the entire process taking about 15 minutes. 

The implants are removable and upgradeable, and the company is working with the FDA to launch a human clinical trial in the US within the next six months. The goal of the trial is to help people with paralysis from complete spinal cord injury regain their digital freedom by enabling them to use their devices as well as, if not better than they could before the injury.

Neuralink, a neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk, is developing an implantable device called the Neuralink R1 that can be surgically inserted into the brain. The device is designed to be inserted by a neurosurgeon, with assistance from the company's R1 robot, which is able to perform the needlework into the brain. The goal of the implant is to allow for direct communication between a human brain and a computer. The company hopes that the implantation process will eventually be streamlined to allow for multiple surgeries to be performed simultaneously by a single neurosurgeon.

 A manual procedure of placing hair-thin electrodes into the brain is difficult and time-consuming and neurosurgeons, who are in short supply and highly trained, would not be able to perform the procedure quickly or affordably. She suggests that the solution may be to develop technology that allows one neurosurgeon to oversee multiple procedures at the same time, similar to how Lasik technology has made laser eye surgery more accessible.

the protective dura layer on the brain

 Neuralink's strategy for developing technology for brain-computer interfaces. They hope to follow a similar model as Lasik, using robots to perform only the hardest parts of the operation first, but slowly expanding their capabilities to eventually become highly automated. To achieve this, they are developing a CNC-style automated cutting machine for precision skull cutting without damaging the brain and new sub-surface imaging technology that would allow them to leave the protective dura layer on the brain, while the R1 robot does the procedure. 

This would solve the problem of fleshy growths sticking to the brain surface and making it hard to remove the implant later without damaging tissue.

The challenges of creating a needle that can insert the implant without exposing any brain tissue, and how Neuralink's needle design and manufacturing team has overcome these challenges by inventing a new needle that is much thinner than a human hair and able to push through the tough, fibrous dura layer. They have also pushed the limits of their machinery to manufacture it quickly and accurately. 

The team lead, Sam Schmitz, explains that they had to dig into the science of femtosecond laser ablation and figure out a workflow that allows them to use their laser mill much like a CNC mill, which allows them to iterate on new designs under an hour. The latest iteration of the needle can insert through nine layers of dura totaling 3 mm on the benchtop. This is far more than they would ever expect to find in a human, with a significant margin.

Brain signals sent through the Neuralink implant

The future applications of the technology developed by Neuralink, beyond just allowing paralyzed individuals to control devices telepathically. One area of focus is vision. The visual cortex of the brain is relatively well understood, and Neuralink's equipment is capable of inserting electrodes deep enough to not only read what is happening in a sighted individual's visual cortex but also to send information directly to the cortex. This has the potential for applications such as restoring or enhancing vision for people who have lost it due to injury or disease.

 The potential application of Neuralink's technology in restoring or enhancing vision for people who are born completely blind. They explain that the device could take a signal from a camera and directly stimulate the cortex, allowing the person to gain a rudimentary, low-resolution sense of vision, which could improve as the equipment improves. The team has made progress in this area by training implanted monkeys to move their gaze in the direction of a flashing light in exchange for a reward and then replacing real flashing lights with brain signals sent through the Neuralink implant. The monkeys glance over to the exact spot targeted by the brain implant as if there was a real flashing light there. The goal is to create a brain-chip display that will allow the blind to see in the future.

Neuralink's next target, which is even more ambitious: restoring motor function after paralysis. They explain that Neuralink hopes to use its implants to read motor commands from the brain, and then re-route them around serious spinal cord injuries, into lower motor neurons that can transmit the messages to the muscles. This could potentially allow individuals with paralysis to regain movement and control of their limbs.

The team started inducing muscular movement in the pig after deciphering the brain's movement intentions.

The team has made it towards its goal of restoring motor function after paralysis. They mention that the team has implanted the device in both the brains and spinal cords of pigs and began to decode which patterns of brain activity signal motor intentions that result in specific patterns of electrical activity in the lower spinal cord. The researchers have been able to identify the patterns responsible for certain movements and have been able to replicate some of them by directly stimulating the spinal cord, for example, muscle contractions that would lift the pigs' legs up. This is a promising step towards the goal of restoring motor function after paralysis.

The team's goal of restoring sensation by re-routing messages back to the brain. This would require additional implants in the sensory cortex. The team wants to create a loop where the motor intention is decoded from the brain, used to stimulate the spinal cord, causing movement, and then the sensory consequences of those actions are recorded in the spinal cord and stimulate the brain, causing perception. The Head of Next-Gen of Neuralink, Joseph O'Doherty, states that they still have a lot of work to do to achieve this full vision, but the pieces are all there to achieve it.
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