Last week, Neuralink, a neurotech company co-founded by Elon Musk, announced that it had gained approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the pharma and devices regulator, for human trials of its brain implant technology. With the potential to unlock human potential and restore autonomy to people with medical needs, the company’s overarching goal is to create a generalised brain interface that can communicate between brain activity and electronic or digital devices, providing functions and features that are desperately lacking in those with neurological issues or disabilities.
Founded in 2016, Neuralink is backed by no less than Elon Musk and has raised at least $363m to date. With a sizable staff of over 400 employees, it has the resources to make significant breakthroughs in the brain-computer interface (BCI) technology field. While there are already some BCI products currently being trialled, such as Blackrock Neurotech’s products, Neuralink’s brain chip has the potential to significantly improve BCI technology due to several key features.
One of its most significant selling points is the computer chip’s implantability. Fully implantable, it can be fixed to the brain surface via a robotic device, meaning that it cannot be seen from the outside. Neuralink’s brain chip, which is known as the N1 implant, consists of custom low-power chips and electronics that process neural signals and transmit them wirelessly to the Neuralink Application, which is then able to decode the data stream to execute desired functions.
The biocompatible implant boasts a small battery that can be charged wirelessly from the outside via an inductive charger and records neural activity through 1,024 electrodes that are distributed across 64 threads. The threads are highly flexible and even thinner than human hair, meaning that inserting them is only possible via a robotic implantation process. The threads are designed to be so thin to prevent damage to the user’s physiology.
One of Neuralink’s standout features is the surgical robot that it developed to insert the threads at exact locations. Its base structure and motion stage provide the structural platform and three-axis linear motion used by the robot head and needle positioner. The robot’s head contains five camera systems and a specially designed optical coherence tomography (OCT) system.
Neuralink has several key differences when compared to its competitors. Firstly, the bandwidth of N1’s implant is several times higher than most rival products. Secondly, Neuralink’s approach is more invasive compared to some of its rivals, with its products sitting on the surface of the brain being detachable.
However, the fundamental difference is in the synergistic interaction between human beings and the implant technology on offer. While most BCI players are specifically looking to address neurological pathologies, Neuralink’s implants aim to enhance human function eventually, taking human-machine interaction to an entirely new level.
There are several challenges when it comes to developing brain implants. Firstly, there is an issue of older products needing to be replaced by newer models, in a process that could become considerably invasive. Secondly, there is the issue of loss of functionality due to wear and tear. Finally, there are ethical questions to consider in terms of human capacity enhancement. What will happen if the technology remains too expensive for a large chunk of the population, exacerbating existing inequalities?
The future of Neuralink remains far from clear. While human trials could begin soon – Musk has said in the past that he expected these trials to begin within the next six months from November last year – the green light for this regulatory stage is just the first hurdle that has been cleared. There is still some way to go before the company can achieve regulatory approval for usage. For now, there is an active patient registry on Neuralink’s website, although only those with specific conditions such as paralysis, blindness, deafness or the inability to speak are eligible to register. There will undoubtedly be a lot to keep an eye on as this pioneering company continues to push the boundaries on brain implant technology.