Tech

How Elon Musk’s Neuralink built first ever human brain implant

Neuralink, the brain-chip company co-founded by Elon Musk, uses implants that enable paralyzed people to remotely control devices with their mind — and hopes the device will one day help restore their motor functions.

The revolutionary technology relies on a coin-sized implant, known as “the Link,” to record and decode neural signals and then transmit information back to the brain using electric stimulation.

“The Link” is embedded under the skull, where it receives data from neural threads that are attached to different parts of the subject’s brain, particularly those that control motor skills.

Elon Musk co-founded Neuralink with the goal of helping paraplegics and the blind. REUTERS

This week, the brain chip developed an unexpected problem a few months after it was inserted into its first test subject, 29-year-old Noland Arbaugh, who is paralyzed from the neck down after a diving accident eight years ago.

Some of the micro-threads detached but the company said it was able to make the implant more sensitive to improve its performance.

Each thread has sensors that are capable of recording and emitting electrical currents that are “so fine and flexible that they can’t be inserted by the human hand,” according to Neuralink’s website.

The company uses a surgical robot for the delicate procedure.

The implants could also help improve memory and cognitive abilities, restore sensory, visual, and motor functions, and treat neurological disorders, Neuralink said.

Patient Zero

In January, the company implanted The Link into Arbaugh’s brain. Last month, he was shown being able to play video games by telepathically controlling a mouse during a nine-minute live stream hosted by Neuralink.

Noland Arbaugh, 29, had a Neuralink chip implanted in his brain. CaringBridge

During the video, Arbaugh explained that he simply imagines the cursor moving where he wants it to go and it does.

“Now I can literally just lie in bed and play to my heart’s content,” he added in the March livestream.

Setback

On Wednesday, Neuralink wrote a blog item on its website indicating that the Arbaugh’s brain implant experienced a problem.

“In the weeks following the surgery, a number of threads retracted from the brain, resulting in a net decrease in the number of effective electrodes,” according to the blog post.

“In response to this change, we modified the recording algorithm to be more sensitive to neural population signals, improved the techniques to translate these signals into cursor movements, and enhanced the user interface,” Neuralink added, insisting that the refinement will enhance the accuracy of Arbaugh’s ability to control the cursor’s bits per second (BPS).

Arbaugh was able to play computer chess using his thoughts. Neuralink

BPS, according to the company, is “the standard measure for speed and accuracy.”

The company did not specify how many threads detached.

“Suffice to say, that’s not supposed to happen,” Matt Angle, CEO of Paradromics, an Austin-based company that is developing its own device to compete Neuralink, told WIRED.

Riki Banerjee, chief technology officer of New York-based Synchron, which is also testing a brain-computer interface to help people with paralysis, said such setbacks are to be expected.

“Neuralink designed a very novel neural interface,” Banerjee told WIRED.

Neuralink said its coin-sized “Link” device that was implanted in Arbaugh’s skull malfunctioned. Getty Images/iStockphoto

“They’re learning, and that is part of the process.”

More Patients

Before Neuralink looks to make the Link accessible to a wider population, it first has to complete its first human clinical trial, called PRIME, which is expected to last six years.

Neuralink is reportedly recruiting more eligible patients — who must be at least 18 years old, live in the US or Canada and be suffering with significant physical impairment — to receive the Link.

Musk is seen standing next to the surgical robot that connects the chip to the brain. Neuralink/AFP via Getty Images
The chip records and decodes neural signals and then transmits information back to the brain using electric stimulation.

The company has said that chosen participants will be compensated for costs related to partaking in the trial, including travel expenses to and from the study site, plus the actual cost of the implant, which tech platform EM360 reported runs about $10,500.

Insurance, however, is expected to hike that price up to around $50,000 once the Link hits the market. 

Telepathy

Neuralink announced earlier this year that it rolled out its “first product” — Telepathy — which “enables control of your phone or computer and through them almost any device, just by thinking.”

“Initial users will be those who have lost the use of their limbs,” Musk wrote on X. “Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal.”

Musk also teased another possible feature of the brain chip called Blindsight, which could help with vision restoration, in response to a video posted by another user on X.



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