Neuralink’s Ambitious Journey: Exploring the Potential and Challenges of Brain-Computer Interfaces

The human brain is the most complex biological structure known to date. We still don’t fully understand how our brain works. However, advancements in neuroscience have not halted. From ~4,000 BCE to the present, researchers have continuously achieved new milestones in neuroscientific research.

Neuroscientists have made significant progress in mapping the intricate functions of over 85 billion or more neurons in the brain, with over 100 trillion connections among them. 100 trillion is an immense number, considering our Milky Way galaxy contains only about 400 billion stars.

Now, let’s talk about the size of the brain. Introducing the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI). It is a device implanted in a user’s body, primarily in the brain, and directly establishes a connection with a computer. Through this interface, users will be able to give various commands to the computer using signals from their brain, meaning they can perform multiple tasks on the computer using just their brain (here, the term ‘computer’ doesn’t refer to personal computers we use in our homes).

How the BCI device is implanted. Source: WIRED.

The entire concept of Brain-Computer Interface or BCI is quite remarkable. Neurons, the microscopic cells in our brains, constantly transmit electrical signals to one another. What you think, do, or experience in the world around you results from the activities of these 80 billion or more neurons.

If you implant a tiny device very close to these neurons, you can record the electrical activities/signals created by the neurons and transmit them to a computer if needed. If a device can be implanted in the right area of the brain, it can record sufficient signals to control many things by interpreting the brain’s commands. However, there are many technological limitations, especially in recording and processing such a vast number of neuron signals.

In the 1970s, the first BCI was developed, but it was relatively basic and intended primarily for creating communication pathways with cats. However, the first device implanted in a human was built in 1991, which allowed control of a computer mouse cursor using just the brain’s signals. Since then, we have witnessed BCIs capable of controlling various complex devices such as robotic limbs, wheelchairs, and exoskeletons.

Elon Musk’s controversial brain-chip company, Neuralink, has recently been making headlines.

They have finally received human clinical trials approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On May 25, 2023, Neuralink posted on their social media that the FDA had approved their first clinical trial on humans. Previously, they faced multiple rejections from the FDA for various reasons.

Surgical robot used to make precise implantation. Source Woke Studio.

Neuralink’s creation, the ‘Link’ device, contains a computer chip surgically implanted into the brain by a precise surgical robot. The robot makes a small incision in the skull and then attaches electrode-like threads to specific areas of the brain (A link connects thousands of tiny threads or electrodes with specific neurons; noteworthy is that since 2005, BCIs with 100 electrodes have been used). Each ‘thread’ is about a quarter the diameter of a human hair. After implantation, the incision is stitched up. The device communicates with a computer via Bluetooth and can be charged wirelessly through a wireless charger.

We already know that the brain contains special cells called neurons that transmit signals to our muscles and other cells. Neuralink’s chip can read and process these signals, meaning it can decode and categorize them for different purposes. Now, the question arises, can Neuralink chip read our thoughts? The concise answer is no. Despite Elon Musk’s claims on Twitter, the reality is quite different.

Threads. Source: Neuralink.

With Brain-Computer Interfaces, we can decode only a limited amount of information from the brain. So, reading a person’s mind using this technology is not currently possible. Additionally, experts on the frontline of research in Brain-Computer Interfaces say that imagining a Brain-Computer Interface being able to read our minds in this era is quite tricky.

The fundamental problem is that we don’t know where or how our thoughts are stored in the brain. If we don’t understand how memories are stored in our brains, then how can we read our minds with computer chips?

So far, the progress in Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) has been relatively limited, and these developments are mostly confined to labs and research. Although some may think that recently, a company named Synchron successfully implanted a permanent device called “Stentrode” in the brain of a 48-year-old patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to restore his ability to communicate and move, this is also done for research purposes within the confines of a lab. We are still waiting for the results to be punished. However, several startups, including Neuralink, are taking this technology to a consumer level.

Currently, through research-level BCIs, we can decode the signals for basic activities like seeing, hearing, and desired speech. We can also convert those signals to control a computer mouse cursor, robotic limbs, wheelchairs, and exoskeletons. That’s about it; we can’t perform more complex tasks now.

Pager, the monkey, playing Ping Pong with a joystick.

In 2021, Elon Musk’s Neuralink released a proof-of-concept video through their social media. In the video, a monkey named “Pager” is seen playing a ping-pong game using a chip implanted in its brain. Though it may seem groundbreaking, it was not entirely new as a concept.

Pager, the monkey, was first shown how to play pong using a joystick. When it made the correct moves, it received a small reward, like a banana smoothie. Throughout the game, Neuralink’s device ‘Link,’ implanted in its brain, recorded signals of its neural activity related to the game. Later, the joystick was disconnected, and Pager could play the game solely using its brain.

However, claims like “implanting a chip will allow for storing massive amounts of information, no need to read/learn, control thoughts, learn a new language in a glimpse, no individual thinking, uploading the brain to a robot, etc.” are all scientific fiction without any basis in reality.

Neuralink’s device ‘Link’ has only been implanted in animal brains, particularly in the brains of animals. It has received approval for human trials only. The FDA has categorized Neuralink as a Class III medical device, the riskiest category. Before starting human trials, Neuralink must comply with all the stringent regulations of the FDA and establish the necessary measures. The approval process for human testing can take quite a long time.

Now, let’s see how much of Elon Musk’s claims on Twitter are feasible in reality.

  • Implantation in Humans: According to Musk, Neuralink can implant the ‘Link’ in a person’s brain within less than a year. His claim is not as futuristic as it may sound because various neurotechnologies have already been implanted in the brains of over 200,000 individuals worldwide, primarily for treating conditions like Parkinson’s and neurological disorders.
  • Curbing Addiction and Depression: Neuroscientists believe that by implanting electrodes in the brain, addiction and depression can be reduced. Electrodes have already been embedded in the brains of over 200 patients as a treatment for depression. The internal capsule of the brain is where the electrodes are placed and connected to the prefrontal cortex. In several countries, electrodes have been implanted in the brains of addicted individuals to control addiction. Although using BCI to control addiction and depression is still experimental, further research might make it more viable for public use.
  • Solving Various Problems like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): This is also not entirely new, but the technology’s functioning continuously improves with time.
  • Autism and Brain Injury: The treatment of autism and brain injuries through electrodes implanted in the brain is already being done, but it is still in the research phase. Monitoring and complete results are yet to be obtained. Please note that these claims are based on Elon Musk’s statements, and while some aspects are grounded in existing research, others may require further development and validation.
  • Brain-Music Streaming: Although it may seem unlikely, neuroscientists say that it is technically possible now because they have mapped our brain’s auditory regions quite accurately. However, it may take considerable time to become a reality.

Currently, the company uses biocompatible polymers for the “Link” implant, which does not have a ten-year lifespan within the human body as required by FDA regulations for medical devices that are not easily replaceable.

Regardless, the brain-computer interface has the potential to solve various problems, but we still lack sufficient resources or advanced technology for its realization.

Critics acknowledge the potential benefits of Neuralink, but the problem is that the company is moving too fast, causing concern among many. The issue lies in the time required for problem-solving and overcoming limitations. Hasty solutions should be avoided in favor of thoughtful progress.

Beyond the potential medical applications of “Link,” one must also consider the astonishing claims made about the technology. It is suggested that Neuralink could establish an on-demand connection to enhance human intelligence.

Even if such technologies hold promise for the future, they should not be prematurely disclosed to the public until they are safely proven. They might only be attainable through rigorous testing.

Collaboration between the company, academic research labs, and government and private investments can create innovative ways to understand the brain better and develop more advanced brain-computer interfaces. As a result, more people may benefit from these interfaces, aiding in overcoming limitations caused by brain injuries or diseases.

Whether or not Neuralink achieves its ambitious goals, entrepreneurs and other technology innovators using brain-machine interfaces will undoubtedly drive advancements in neuroscientific research.

Many challenges still lie ahead, and we must face them to move forward.

Originally published as a Bengali article in Biggan Blog.