Musk start-up placed the first chip in the human brain

Elon Musk’s medical technology company Neuralink placed a brain implant into a human for the first time.

The tech billionaire wrote on his online platform that the patient was doing well after Sunday’s procedure. Other companies and researchers are also working on such processes.

Neurotechnologist Rüdiger Rupp from Heidelberg University Hospital said there was still a lot of information missing about the case so far. For example, it is unclear how many wires were implanted and whether the experiment was designed to be temporary or permanent. The fact that neuronal activity can be derived initially does not mean much. “This doesn’t mean controlling the smartphone,” Rupp emphasized. To do this, the activity of the neurons must be able to be actively modulated by the user through thoughts, and a neural decoder must also stably convert the neural activity into control commands.

Possible until ready for market

The technology itself does not represent a revolution, said neuroinformatician Moritz Grosse-Wentrup of the University of Vienna. Robot arms have been controlled by individual patients via implants for almost two decades. “In principle the technology already exists, but with Neuralink it is now possible to use a lot of money and a lot of employees to solve countless small problems until it is ready for the market.”

risk of infection

Grosse-Wentrup explained that the implant has a relatively large number of 1,024 electrodes that connect to nerve cells in the brain. Additionally, certain areas and therefore functions can be controlled very precisely. The biggest disadvantage of the procedure from the neuroinformatician’s point of view: “You are inside the brain.” This always carries the risk of infection, and the brain tissue defends itself like any other, for example by encapsulation reactions. “It’s still completely unclear how long the system can remain stable.” Similar invasive approaches have shown that the number of observable neurons decreases over time.

Grosse-Wentrup said that it will be possible to truly evaluate Neuralink only in a few years. The first approvals can only be expected in about a decade. Neuralink has many competitors who also want to use the technology commercially. Precision Neuroscience company wants to attach its 1,024-electrode implant to the brain in a minimally invasive way on a film through a very thin incision in the skull. Synchron aims to bring a 16-electrode system closer to the right parts of the brain through blood vessels.

Money as an advantage for Neuralink

But Grosse-Wentrup says Neuralink has a particular advantage over other companies and collaborations with similar goals: “None of the others can provide nearly the same amount of money.” It is not clear to the expert where Musk hopes to make huge profits once the technology is ready for the market. The group of patients who could predictably benefit is not very large. “Very few people have this severe a stroke.” In all cases, the risk of invasive surgery on the brain needs to be weighed. There are other options, such as voice control of computers and devices.

Grosse-Wentrup added that, in principle, it is possible in the long term to allow certain patients to walk again using this technology. But the costs and challenges are huge.

Addictions to Musk

But dealing with large amounts of money and uncertain expectations is nothing new for Elon Musk. The 52-year-old entrepreneur and billionaire brought electric car manufacturer Tesla and space company SpaceX to global prominence. Under his pressure, the entire automotive industry has increasingly turned to electric vehicles. The US cannot do without SpaceX’s rockets; In the future, people will fly to the moon and Mars with SpaceX’s “Starship” rocket system. Dependence on Musk’s Starlink satellite system is also increasing. His decisions at Twitter, which he bought in 2022 and later renamed X, could affect the next White House election campaign.

Rupp said that right now, Neuralink has no clear advantage over other implanted solutions. However, this huge interest may still be justified, as Musk is known to be very determined and persistent in bringing innovations to market maturity and practical usability. “For Musk to launch a product with Neuralink, like Tesla or SpaceX, and keep it on the market for a long time with the large amount of money available, it would be a huge benefit for the entire BCI space,” Rupp said. . BCI stands for brain-computer interfaces.

Directly connected to brain tissue

Musk founded the Neuralink company in 2016 to research ways to connect the human brain to machines. Neuralink received permission to use the developed implant for research purposes in a clinical study on humans in May 2023. Before this, the technology had been tested on animals.

The implant’s extremely thin electrodes are connected directly to the brain tissue during the operation using a special robot. External devices must then be able to be controlled wirelessly. For the clinical study, Neuralink was looking for patients with quadriplegia, a paraplegia that affects the legs and arms.

Thoughts control actions

Many institutions and companies have been conducting research on brain-computer interfaces for years. They are based on the brain creating electrical fields. These areas can be measured and represent an image of our thoughts. Because certain thoughts are associated with characteristic patterns, computers can be taught to draw conclusions about our thoughts from these patterns.

If this were successful, paralyzed people could control an exoskeleton using mind control, for example, or people with locked-in syndrome could communicate with their outside world. Rupp currently believes that less invasive electrode systems, in which brain activity is read through an implant beneath the skull but not deep within the brain, are more promising than Neuralink’s approach.

(APA/dpa)

Source: Vienna

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