Elon Musk has a reputation as the world’s greatest doer. He can propose crazy ambitious technological projects—like reusable rockets for Mars exploration and hyperloop tunnels for transcontinental rapid transit—and people just assume he’ll pull it off.Previously:
So his latest venture, a new company called Neuralink that will reportedly build brain implants both for medical use and to give healthy people superpowers, has gotten the public excited about a coming era of consumer-friendly neurotech.
Even neuroscientists who work in the field, who know full well how difficult it is to build working brain gear that passes muster with medical regulators, feel a sense of potential. “Elon Musk is a person who’s going to take risks and inject a lot of money, so it will be exciting to see what he gets up to,” says Thomas Oxley, a neural engineer who has been developing a medical brain implant since 2010 (he hopes to start its first clinical trial in 2018).
Neuralink is still mysterious. An article in The Wall Street Journal announced the company’s formation and first hires, while also spouting vague verbiage about “cranial computers” that would serve as “a layer of artificial intelligence inside the brain.”
So IEEE Spectrum asked the experts about what’s feasible in this field, and what Musk might be planning. First, though, a little background.
Musk did give a few seemingly concrete details at a conference last year (video excerpt below). His neural lace would serve as a “digital layer above the cortex,” he said. Its components wouldn’t necessarily require brain surgery for implantation; instead, the hardware could be injected into the jugular and travel to the brain through the bloodstream.
Neural implants are already a medical reality: Some 150,000 people with Parkinson’s disease have had brain surgery to receive deep-brain stimulators, implants that send regular pulses of electricity through patches of brain tissue to control patients’ tremors. Researchers are now experimenting with these pacemaker-like devices to treat depression and other neuropsychiatric diseases. Some epilepsy patients also have a new type of implant that monitors their brains for signs of impending seizures and sends out stimulating pulses to head them off.
Musk’s neural lace would presumably be designed to treat some disease first; otherwise, it’s hard to imagine the technology gaining regulatory approval. But his descriptions don’t make it sound like existing brain stimulators, but rather like experimental brain-computer interfaces (BCI) that record brain signals and use the information to control external devices like computer cursors and robotic arms. These BCI implants have shown great promise in giving more autonomy to people with paralysis, but none have yet been approved for clinical use.
Now, to the experts!
Mary Lou Jepsen is a Silicon Valley bigwig who recently founded the startup Openwater to develop a noninvasive BCI for imaging and telepathy (the latter could conceivably be done by reading out thought patterns in the brain). Like Musk, she’s interested in both medical applications and augmenting people’s natural abilities. But she says any invasive neural technology brings medical hurdles, even if it doesn’t require splitting open patients’ skulls.
“The approach as I understand it (not much is published) involves implanting silicon particles (so called “neural lace”) into the bloodstream. One concern is that implanting anything in the body can cause unintended consequences,” says Jepsen. “For example, even red blood cells can clog capillaries in the brain when the red blood cells are made more stiff by diseases like malaria. This clogging can reduce or even cut off the flow of oxygen to the parts of the brain. Indeed, clogging of cerebral capillaries has been shown to be a major cause of Alzheimer’s progression. Back to neural lace: One concern I would have is whether the silicon particles could lead to any clogging.”
Jepsen notes that the Wall Street Journal article lists a few neuroscientists who have reportedly been hired on for Neuralink, but says that’s just the first step in a long process. “It’s exciting, but embryonic,” she says.
Thomas Oxley is a practicing neurologist and the inventor of the “stentrode,” a neural probe that can be delivered to the brain through blood vessels—so he has plenty of thoughts about the technology Musk might be developing. He’s CEO of Synchron, the company that’s developing the technology and planning its first clinical trial for 2018 in Australia.
Oxley came up with his stentrode as an alternative to typical electrodes that are placed directly in the brain tissue. Those standard electrodes enable high-fidelity recording from individual neurons, but the stiff silicon and metal structures cause inflammation in the brain tissue, and scar tissue often forms around them over time. “The idea of moving up the blood vessel is that you avoid any direct penetration of the brain tissue,” Oxley says, and thus avoid damaging it. In Oxley’s system, a catheter is snaked up a vein to deliver the stentrode to one of the tiny blood vessels that nourishes the neurons. From there, they can’t record neurons’ activity directly, but Oxley says the “different type of signal” can be deciphered with the right kind of signal processing....MUCH MORE
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