What is Neuralink and how does it work? First implant detached from the patient’s brain

Neuralink’s first human brain implant didn’t go as smoothly as hoped after the device began to detach from the patient’s brain, the company revealed in a blog post on Wednesday.

Nolan Arbaugh, 29, paralyzed, had surgery in February to attach a Neuralink chip to his brain. However, there are a number of ultra-thin wires that help Arbaugh control a computer cursor while his brain is unexpectedly “pulled out” of his brain.

Arbaugh’s implant started experiencing problems in late February.

Neuralink confirmed that its engineers had refined the implant and restored functionality.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the reduced abilities did not harm Arbaugh and he was still able to use the implant to play a game of chess on a computer with his mind.

A video posted to X in March showed what the brain chip can do.

Arbaugh played chess and paused music on a laptop, controlling the mouse on the screen with his thoughts alone.

Neuralink is owned by Elon Musk and was valued at around $5 billion (almost £4n) last year.

In addition to giving paralyzed patients like Arbaugh the ability to interact with technology and communicate more easily, it has further potential to be a revolutionary use of technology.

Just as Tesla helped make electric vehicles mainstream, the big question is whether Neuralink can have the same paradigm-changing impact in the field of brain implants.

The first major use of such an implant is to help people with paralysis live more independently. But the ambition doesn’t stop there.

What is Neuralink and how does it work?

According to Musk, Neuralink’s first implant is called Telepathy. It “enables control over your phone or computer, and through these devices, virtually any device, just by thinking,” he says say.

“The first users will be those who have lost the use of their limbs. Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That’s the goal.”

There is a long history of these types of efforts. In the 1970s, Jacques Vidal used eye movement monitoring to allow paralyzed patients to control a computer mouse. The first human brain-computer interface implant (BCI) was installed in a person in the late 1990s.

And a pioneer of those early experiments, Philip Kennedy, in 2014 paid someone to place a Neuralink precursor implant in his head.

Like Neuralink, these implants monitor brain activity to translate it into computer input, in what could come across as telepathy – hence the name of this first Neuralink product.

“From just a few neurons, patients could move a cursor on a computer screen and communicate by choosing words or letters from a menu,” reads MIT Technology Review’s explanation of Kennedy’s career.

However, Kennedy ultimately paid to have the implant removed because the implant site did not heal properly, introducing a possible infection. But ten years later, Neuralink implants what are essentially the implant’s successors.

Neuralink received Food and Drug Administration approval for human trials in May 2023, leading to this first human implant in January 2024.

US citizens can register on the Neuralink website to express their interest in being involved in trials.

What happens when a Neuralink device is in someone’s head? “I expect that Neuralink will want to give the participant time to recover before training their system together with the participant,” says Anne Vanhoestenberghe, professor of Active Implantable Medical Devices at King’s College London.

“We know that Elon Musk is very adept at generating publicity for his company, so we can expect announcements as soon as they start testing, although real success in my opinion should be judged in the long term, by how stable the interface over time. , and how much the participant benefits from it.”

How does Neuralink work?

As you can imagine, the Neuralink implant consists of two parts. There is the outer casing, which contains the battery and electronics. It’s on the skull.

This includes the ‘brain’ of the device and the Bluetooth chip/antenna. Neuralink transmits data wirelessly, just like sending music to wireless headphones.

The neural side is the second part: “1,024 electrodes distributed over 64 wires” are to be implanted under the patient’s skull, on the brain surface.

A robotic surgeon is used for this part because the procedure requires precision that is not possible with the human hand.

While the process may have changed a bit since then, Musk explained the basics of the invasive surgery in 2020.

‘You remove a piece of skull the size of a coin. And then the robot inserts the electrodes. The device then replaces the removed part of the skull. And we actually close that with super glue, so many wounds are closed. And then you can just walk around afterwards. It’s pretty cool,” Musk said, as reported by VentureBeat.

This grid of electrodes allows the Neuralink device to monitor the firing of brain neurons, observed as signal “spikes.” And by monitoring patterns in these spikes, Neuralink can learn to recognize types of brain activity – a kind of mind reading.

The concept is nothing new, but where older implants only collect a handful to a few hundred of these peak data points, Neuralink can record 1,024. This should allow it to recognize more complicated thought patterns and translate them into actions in a computer or, to develop the concept further, for example in a robot prosthesis.

Once implanted, Arbaugh also shared more insights into how exactly the chip works, emphasizing that using it means learning the difference between imagined movements and attempted movements. Instead of trying to move the mouse, he has to imagine where the mouse will go in order to function.

How much would a Neuralink cost?

Neuralink has not announced pricing for the implant. However, Bloomberg estimates the cost at $10,500 (about £8,300), and suggests insurance companies will ultimately have to pay $40,000 (£31,500) for the procedure in the US.

Neuralink Dangers and Controversies

Neuralink hardware has been tested on animals. In 2020, the company showed the technology implanted in a pig named Gertrude, while monkeys and sheep are also known to have been subjected to animal testing.

According to a Reuters investigation, more than 1,500 animals have been killed as a result. This led to a federal investigation reported in December 2022, although this preceded the company’s FDA approval for human trials.

These human trials are by their nature not without danger. There is a risk of infection and brain damage during the procedure.

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