It is said that the human brain is the most complex biological structure if it ever existed. And while science still doesn’t fully understand the brain, researchers in the expanding field of neuroscience have done so I’m making progress.
Neurologists have made significant breakthroughs to mapping the complex functions of about 85 billion neurons in the brain and the 100 trillion connections between them. (To put this astronomical number into perspective, there are over 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy.)
Enter Neuralinka Silicon Valley startup backed by Elon Musk that developed a neuroprosthetic device known as a brain-computer interface. Among other things, Musk claims that this chip can cure tinnitus, a neurological condition that causes ringing in your ears, within five years. But is this possible?
– Neura Pod (Neuralink updates) (@NeuraPod) April 24, 2022
What is Neuralink?
The Neuralink coin-sized device, called Link, is implanted aligned with the skull of a precision surgical robot. The robot connects thousands of tiny threads from the Connection to specific neurons. Each strand is a quarter of the diameter of a human hair.
The device connects to an external computer via Bluetooth for continuous forward and backward communication.
In the future, Neuralink prostheses can help people with various types of neurological diseases that have a break or malfunction between the brain and the nerves that serve the body. These include people with paraplegia, quadriplegia, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.
Since its inception in 2016, Neuralink has recruitment of first-class neurologists from academia and the wider research community to develop technology to treat these conditions.
The Neuralink monkey can play pong with his mind
In April 2021, the company released remarkable proof of concept video. He showed a nine-year-old macaque monkey named Pager, who successfully plays a Pong game with his mind, with a Neuralink device implanted connected to a computer running the game.
Pager was shown how to play pong with a joystick. When he made the right move, he would get a sip of banana smoothie.
While playing, the Neuralink implant recorded patterns of electrical activity in his brain. This identifies which neurons control which movements.
When the joystick was turned off, Pager was able to play the game and win using only his mind.
The Neuralink monkey can play pong with his mind. Imagine what people with the same technology could do through @ConversationEDU
– @DavidTuffley (@DavidTuffley) April 14, 2021
Attempts at humans to further develop the Neuralink prototype are expected to begin by the end of 2022, depending on the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.
The noise in Musk’s ears is hard
Elon Musk has stated Neuralink can cure tinnitus by 2027
Noise in the ears is a neurological condition that manifests as ringing or buzzing in the ears in the absence of an external source.
Tinnitus is a common problemcaused when the nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, known as the vestibulocochlear nerve, is damaged due to prolonged loud noise, injury or a lack of blood supply.
A cure for tinnitus has been proven elusive. Treatment is currently focused on masking the sound or learning to ignore it.
The Neuralink prosthesis currently connects to the cerebral cortex, the surface layer of the brain. This is where the device can remove damage to the brain’s ability to process motor sensor inputs or outputs.
Are Musk’s claims credible?
These claims may seem spectacular. And yet the basic science is is not disputed.
Neurologists are wide optimistic the device has the potential to treat tinnitus. It can also be useful in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder, recovery from brain injuries and conditions such as autism or degenerative diseases of the nervous system, using deep brain stimulation.
Like Paul Nuyujiukyan, director of the Brain Interface Laboratory at Stanford University, observes:
We are on the verge of a complete paradigm shift. This type of technology has the potential to transform our treatments. Not only for stroke, paralysis and motor degenerative disease, but also for almost every other type of brain disease.
What should we be careful about?
To be approved, the company must provide comprehensive clinical trial data from non-human test subjects (such as the pager monkey) to conservatively justify moving to the next phase. Some monkeys died during the Neuralink tests and critics have expressed concern about animal welfare.
The approval process for human testing may take some time.
Regulators will look for unforeseen negative consequences of the device, such as depression. You will also be interested in how practical it is to remove or repair a device if it does not work, and how to manage the risk of brain injury or infection.
Once approved by the FDA, Neuralink will do so enroll human volunteers and the next round of trials will continue.
How long it will take for the device to appear on the market and how much it will cost, everyone can guess. It can be years and at a price that makes it inaccessible to everyone except the rich.
So it is wise not to have false hopes for an affordable implant in the short term.