What is Neuralink? Everything We Know About the Brain Chip

In Short
  • Neuralink is a neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk in 2016. It aims to enable communication between the human brain and computers.
  • Neuralink implants a chip into the skull and several threads directly into the brain to monitor and stimulate brain activity.
  • The first human participant is now recovering and he is able to play games on computers using just his thoughts.

While AI is growing at an unprecedented pace, new technological advancements are also improving lives in the medical field. Elon Musk’s Neuralink is a neurotechnology company that is developing brain chips to treat many medical conditions. From neurological disorders to human cognitive conditions, the Neuralink brain-computer interface aims to treat such diseases. To learn more about Neuralink, follow our explainer below.

Neuralink is a company founded by Elon Musk in 2016 and its main objective is to enable direct communication between the brain and computers. The company is developing brain chips, also called brain-computer interface (BCI), that can be implanted surgically into the human brain in a non-invasive way.

Currently, Neuralink aims to solve some of the severe human diseases including neurological disorders and mental health conditions. Medical conditions such as spinal cord injuries, or Parkinson’s disease damage the neural function. In such a scenario, the brain-computer interface aims to restore or enhance neural functions just like before.

Neuralink also claims that its BCI can treat mental health conditions like anxiety, and depression. While the technology is in its preliminary stage, the eventual goal is to enhance human capabilities and integrate Artificial Intelligence with the human brain.

The neural implant — the N1 — or the brain chip, is actually a battery-powered device called Link (coin size) that is inserted into the skull, and up to 64 ultra-thin threads are implanted into the brain. The flexible threads are connected to the device in the skull. The threads directly connect with the brain neurons, allowing them to monitor brain activity and also stimulate the brain.

neuralink brain chip implant
Image Courtesy: Neuralink

If you are wondering what a thread is, well, it’s made of biomaterials that are compatible with the human body and don’t damage the tissues. The threads are very thin, much thinner than human hair. And each thread has nearly 16 electrodes — a total of 1024 electrodes — that record the electrical activity in the brain.

The threads transmit all the electrical activity of the brain to the chip in the skull which is the Link. Now, the Link processes all the information and sends it wirelessly to computers, smartphones, or a robotic device. Apart from monitoring brain signals, you can also use the Neuralink chip to stimulate new actions.

neuralink robotic surgery machine
Image Courtesy: Neuralink

As for surgery, Neuralink has developed a high-precision surgical robotic system that is minimally invasive and can implant the threads and the chip to specific regions of the brain.

Yes, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Neuralink to carry out human clinical trials in 2023. Earlier in 2022, the FDA rejected Neuralink’s application based on safety concerns. FDA was of the opinion that the battery attached to the device (Link) in the skull may cause safety issues. In addition, the threads implanted inside the brain may move to other regions of the brain.

In January 2024, Neuralink announced that it had successfully implanted its BCI interface in a human. In the first trial (PRIME study), the company recruited a participant named Noland Arbaugh who was paralyzed (suffering quadriplegia) after a diving accident. After the implant, Arbaugh is reported to have improved his ability to interact with digital devices.

Neuralink further says that the participant is recovering smoothly after the surgery. In addition, he is now able to control a computer mouse with his thoughts. Not only that, the participant is able to play games like Mario Kart which is quite remarkable.

Neuralink says that 300 more clinical trials are underway which will improve the quality of life of patients who are suffering from spinal cord injuries.

While Neuralink continues to carry out its human clinical trials, the company faces many criticisms. Many animal rights groups have accused Musk-led Neuralink of using monkeys for initial trials that led to severe side effects and death.

Apart from that, many critics point out that Neuralink is not open about its human trials. The company is very secretive and doesn’t disclose outcome details for all its participants. Recently, the first Neuralink human participant suffered from threads moving to other regions of the brain. Neuralink explained that “a number of threads retracted from the brain, resulting in a net decrease in the number of effective electrodes.”

The company has managed to control the damage by modifying the recording algorithm and says the functionality has been restored. But again, it raises questions about the safety profile of the threads implanted directly into the brain.

Overall, Neuralink is paving the way for paralyzed patients to perform everyday tasks using neurotechnological advancements. However, there are complex technical, safety, and ethical issues that still require scrutiny and robustness from regulators.

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