Brain surgery next for Elon Musk's Neuralink

'Ultimately, we will achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence,' says Tesla chief and founder of medical start-up

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Elon Musk has had a lot to show off over the past 25 years, including an early online bank, solar roof tiles, a tunnel-digging machine, an electric car, a reusable rocket and even the occasional electric car riding a rocket.

He may have just topped them all with the help of a tubby brown-and-white rat.

The rodent belongs to Neuralink, a company Mr Musk founded to develop a data transmission system between people and computers. Neuralink has been super-secretive about the nature of its work since its founding in 2017, until now.

During its first demonstration in front of a reporter, the start-up showed it can record a rat’s brain activity via thousands of tiny electrodes surgically implanted alongside the animal’s neurons and synapses. To do this, Neuralink, based in San Francisco, appears to have achieved a number of breakthroughs that let it place high-speed computing systems inside a brain, while causing less damage than existing techniques.

The company will seek US Food and Drug Administration approval to start clinical trials on humans as early as next year, according to president Max Hodak. The goal is to drill four 8mm holes into paralysed patients’ skulls and insert implants that will give them the ability to control computers and smartphones using their thoughts.

Yes, really.

“A lot of people have written this off like it’s impossible,” says Mr Hodak. “There will be great things to come in this field in the next decade, and they should take it seriously.”

Neuralink, which has raised more than $150 million (Dh550.8m) from investors, including at least $100m from chief executive Mr Musk, is betting that millions of people will eventually elect to become cybernetically enhanced.

“This is going to sound pretty weird, but ultimately, we will achieve symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” Mr Musk says. “This is not a mandatory thing. It is a thing you can choose to have if you want. This is something that I think will be really important on a civilisation-level scale.”

Philosophers, sci-fi enthusiasts and daydreamers have long imagined what it might be like to turbocharge their brainpower or read someone else’s thoughts. Lately, a number of start-ups have tried to find out. Companies such as CTRL-labs and Kernel are working on external devices to detect neurons’ firing patterns from outside a person’s body and transmit them to a computer. The next level up is figuring out how to safely insert a device into the brain, where the neural signals are the strongest and the process can go much faster.

This has proved tricky, to say the least. Inserting electrical wires and other devices into the brain requires a great deal of precision. And the brain tends to treat probes as foreign invaders, forming scar tissue around the wires and muddying their ability to carry clear signals. People in dire circumstances have been willing to implant devices that stimulate parts of their brain to, say, regain some vision or tame tremors caused by Parkinson’s disease. But these processes often carry serious long-term risks. Neuralink’s goal is to leave its sort of mind-reading computer sitting safely and indefinitely inside someone’s head.

“All of this will occur actually quite slowly,” Mr Musk says. “It’s not going to be like suddenly, Neuralink will have this incredible neural lace and start taking over people’s brains. It will take a long time, and you will see it coming.”

The 100-person start-up is counting on its advances in materials and robotics to get there. To insert the needed wires into the brain, it built a robot about the size of a barbecue grill that uses high-end optics to peer into holes drilled in the skull and then place the wires precisely. Each wire is one-quarter the width of a human hair and laced with dozens of electrodes. Their design and composition make them sturdy enough to pass through brain tissue, according to Neuralink. The lenses and computer vision software help the robot avoid hitting blood vessels, reducing damage to the brain and formation of scar tissue.

“Because these things are so thin and flexible, the idea is that they move with the tissue instead of tearing the tissue,” says Neuralink researcher Philip Sabes.

In a research paper released on Tuesday evening, Neuralink said it has performed at least 19 surgeries on animals with its robots and successfully placed the wires, which it calls “threads”, about 87 per cent of the time.

In a secret Bay Area lab, a recent patient, that hefty brown-and-white rat, moved around a large rectangular plastic cage filled with wood shavings and Parmesan cheese.

A wire attached to a USB-C port in its head transmitted its thoughts to a nearby computer. The crackle of its neurons firing could be heard over a speaker while software recorded and analysed its brain activity, measuring the strength of brain spikes.

Mr Sabes says the amount of data being gathered from the rat was about 10 times greater than what today’s most powerful sensors can collect.

Of course, lots of treatments that work in rodents have failed to make the leap to successful human testing. And while Neuralink has been rumoured to be testing its technology on primates, it has yet to reveal anything publicly about this work.

Even if the implants function as expected, the company will need to show that it can do something safe and useful with them by providing therapies - something many scientists see as an open question. Only once all of that is done can other consumers begin to opt for some light skull-drilling.

If the approvals come through, Neuralink’s electrodes, once placed in the holes in a patient’s skull, are supposed to register brain activity and relay it to a small device implanted behind the ear that transmits the data to a computer. Mr Hodak says the first surgeries will take place under general anesthesia but he hopes local anesthetics will suffice in the future.

“We will painlessly laser-drill the holes into the skull, place the threads, plug the hole with the sensor, and then you go home,” he says. “It’ll basically be an experience like getting laser eye surgery.”

If all goes as planned, Mr Hodak says, post-op patients will be able to input words into a text message or email simply by thinking them and to move a cursor with a mouse and navigate web pages mentally, too.

One day far into the future, people who have the surgery may be able to download a new language into their brain, or digitally exchange thoughts with someone else, the 30-year-old Mr Hodak says.

"I've been interested in this since I saw The Matrix in fifth grade." For now, he says, he's focused on helping patients suffering from paralysis, and the goal is typing 40 words per minute.