Neuralink is a nanobiotechnology company developing implantable brain-computer interface (BCI) to connect humans and computers. The San Francisco, California-based company was founded in 2016 by Elon Musk and Max Hodak. The BCIs in development by Neuralink are designed to be high bandwidth brain-machine interface that connect people and machines in productive ways. The company aims to solve brain diseases in the short term and have a fully functional machine-human interface in the long term. The initial goal of Neuralink has been for its implants “to give people with paralysis their digital freedom back” by letting them “communicate more easily via text, to follow their curiosity on the web, to express their creativity through photography and art, and, yes, to play video games.”
Neuralink’s devices build upon academic research in deep brain stimulation, cochlear implants, neurostimulation for epilepsy, and the Utah array. The Utah array, used for neural recording in BCI research and the BrainGate device, is made of a rigid grid of up to 128 electrode channels. In comparison, Neuralink states its systems can record from 1,500 or 3000 electrode channels. The thin, flexible electrodes are claimed to be less likely to cause tissue damage than the Utah Array, which is known to cause a tissue response that can interfere with recorded signals or damage brain cells. Elon Musk prefers to use the term "neural lace" for the BCIs in development by Neuralink. A term he took from a series of science fiction books written by the Scottish novelist Iain M. Banks called The Culture.
Pedram Mosehni, a bioengineer, and Randolph Nudo, a brain specialist, created the startup NeuraLink in 2011 to develop their idea for treating traumatic brain injuries with an electronic chip that is inserted into the brain. They wanted to make a chip capable of reestablishing damaged connections inside the brain by recording neurons in one brain area, then transmitting their activity to another. By 2013, the two founders developed a prototype that had some success helping improve the brain of rats with brain damage.
In 2015, Mosehni and Nudo were challenged with raising money to continue their work and were approached by a buyer, whose identity was unknown to them at the time, wanting to purchase the trademark rights for their company's name, NeuraLink. The two founders sold the company name to the mysterious buyer for tens of thousands of dollars (the actual amount is unknown). It was not until after the deal was made that Mohseni and Nudo learned that the mysterious buyer was actually Elon Musk. Musk decided to change the name of the company slightly from NeuraLink to Neuralink before officially founding the company in 2016.
Neuralink's co-founder, Max Hodak, graduated from Duke in 2012 with a degree in biomedical engineering. Hodak previously started companies MyFit and Transcriptic.Neuralink founding team members Timothy Hanson and Philip Sabes, along with Michel Maharbiz at UC Berkeley, developed a device dubbed the "sewing machine" that uses a stiff needle to drive flexible electrodes into the brain.Vanessa Tolosa has acted as Neuralink's microfabrication expert.
Max Hodak, credited a 2003 paper in PLOS One, written by a team led by Miguel A.L. Nicolelis at Duke University, as the first to show macaque monkeys using their brains to make robotic arms reach and grasp; this research laid the foundation on which their work builds. Hodak previously did research in the Nicolelis lab at Duke.
The company is making a neural lace with the ability to recognize and interact with the electrical and chemical signals passing through the nervous system within neurons. Their devices in development detect the electrical field produced by nerve action potentials and record the information represented by a neuron. The brain is then represented by the firing statistics of action potentials. Neural recordings can be decoded and turned into electrical signals fed back to the nervous system or into robotic devices. Neuralink's N1 Sensor is designed to "record from and selectively stimulate as many neurons as possible across diverse brain areas." The company has three publicly stated goals for its neural lace technology:
- Increase by orders of magnitude the number of neurons you can read from and write to in safe, long-lasting ways
- At each stage, produce devices that serve critical unmet medical needs of patients
- Make it as simple and automated as LASIK
Neuralink’s device was presented as a research platform for use in rodents and as a prototype towards a fully implantable human BCI in a 2019 white paper in bioRxiv. It describes the system as utilizing a wired connection to maximize the bandwidth for raw data streaming for research and development. Clinical devices that will be derived from the platform are planned to be fully implantable, have on-board signal compression, reduced power consumption, wireless power transmission, and data telemetry through the skin without percutaneous leads.
A potential use of Neuralink's devices would be to allow people with paralysis to control computers and phones with their thoughts. This includes decoding movement intentions in the motor cortex, which could allow a paralyzed person to control avatars or assisted robotic devices. Neuralink also states that their technology could be used to decode speech intentions, which also originate in the motor cortex.
By feeding electrical stimulation back to the brain cortex, Neuralink also plans to provide the perception of visual stimulation to a blind person or touch feedback to help someone operate a prosthetic device. The idea is similar to how cochlear implants use an external device to convert sound to electrical stimulation of nerve fibers along the cochlea.
In the 2019 presentation introducing Neuralink, Elon Musk stated the long term goal is achieving symbiosis with artificial intelligence. A challenge acknowledged by Neuralink is to achieve longevity of the devices and to prevent potential safety issues due to the device breakdown in the harsh environment inside the brain.
Neuralink's first BCI product designed for humans, called the "N1 Sensor" was planned to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and be successfully implanted into a human patient by the end of 2020 in a clinical study. The device was still awaiting approval in mid-2021. According to Hodak, Neuralink would attempt to pursue an early feasibility study under an investigational device exemption.
The first clinical study will focus on patients with quadriplegia due to C1-C4 spinal cord injury and will use a four-chip setup to enable patients to control their smartphones using their brains. One of the N1 sensors would be implanted in the somatosensory cortex and the other three placed in the motor cortex. Each sensor has more than a thousand electrodes. Through that they will be able to control a computer mouse and keyboard by using a Bluetooth connection. Musk stated in 2017 that it may be around eight to ten years before the device is available for people without disabilities.
The goal is for the procedure to take place under conscious sedation and local anesthetic. Each N1 Sensor will be placed into a patient's brain by a surgical robot. The robot will make a 2mm incision that dilates to approximately 8mm before the chip is implanted into the brain. The robot will place each thread (approximately 1/3 the size of a human hair) coming off of their N1 Sensor computer chip to their desired locations (determined by a neurosurgeon) within the brain. Threads are about the diameter of a neuron. The sensor will be placed to fill the hole in the skull and the scalp will be closed over it. The procedure will produce an incision that can be glued shut and does not require stitches. Each chip placed within a patient's brain will have a power wire running under the patients scalp to an inductive coil found behind the patients ear. The inductive coil will be connected to a wearable device called "The Link," which acts as the power supply and bluetooth radio. If The Link is removed, the implant will shut off and stop working.
The company claims that version one of their Neural Lace, called the N1 Sensor, is made of 1024-channel sensors on a 4mm by 4mm computer chip, and that it's possible to scale their chip to contain up to 10,000-channel sensors in later versions. The N1 chip is made to communicate with other devices wirelessly and is capable of reading and writing information. The N1 Sensor will be controllable through a mobile application, a bluetooth mouse, and a bluetooth keyboard for helping patients learn how to use the chip effectively after implantation while they are at home.
The surgical robot developed by Neuralink is made to perform the placement of threads coming off the N1 sensor into a patient's brain during surgery. The robot's insertion needle is milled from a 40 micrometer diameter tungsten-rhenium wire stock that is electrochemically etched into a 24 micrometer diameter for the length of the insertion needle that gets inserted into the brain. A diagram of the insertion needle can be found below along with an image of the insertion needle inserting a thread of the N1 Sensor:
The robot registers insertion sites to a common coordinate frame with landmarks on the skull and also uses depth tracking to target anatomically defined brain structures. Insertion sites are pre-selected for planning optimal paths to minimize tangling and strain on threads and avoid vasculature damage. The robot can insert up to 6 threads per minute. While the system is automated, a surgeon can make manual microadjustments.
The main substrate and dielectric used in the probes is polyimide encapsulating a gold thin film trace. Each thin film array has a “thread” area with electrode contacts and traces and a “sensor area” where the film interfaces with custom chips enabling signal amplification and acquisition. The devices can be manufactured in a high-throughput manner using a wafer-level microfabrication process. On a wafer, ten thin film devices are patterned each with 3,072 contacts. Each array has 48 or 96 threads with each containing 32 independent electrodes. A flip-chip bonding process is used to bond integrated chips to the contacts on the sensor area of the thin film.
To keep the channel count high with a minimal size thread to minimize tissue displacement in the brain, stepper lithography and other microfabrication techniques are used. A metal film at sub-micron resolution is produced. Threads are reported to be normally 4 to 6 micrometers thick including up to three layers of insulation and two layers of conductor and are 20 mm long. Surface modifications are used to lower impedance for electrophysiology and increase the effective charge-carrying capacity of the interface. Treatments include polymer poly-ethylenedioxythiophene doped with polystyrene sulfonate (PEDOT:PSS) and iridium oxide (IrOx).
The custom Neuralink application specific integrated circuit (ASIC) is used to build the electronics component, which consists of 256 individually programmable amplifiers (“analog pixels”), on-chip analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), and peripheral control circuitry for serializing the digitized outputs. The Neuralink ASIC forms the core of a modular platform. Neuralink uses a number of ASICs integrated into a standard printed circuit board using flilp-chip integration. The systems are packaged in titanium cases coated in parylene-c as a moisture barrier. Neural data from these systems are streamed from an ethernet-connected base station. Each station can connect up to three implants simultaneously.
Neuralink’s 2019 non-peer reviewed whitepaper demonstrates two of their devices, System A and System B, were implanted in rats and took electrophysiological recordings as they moved around freely. Digitized broadband signals were processed in real time to identify action potentials, also referred to as spikes, using an online detection algorithm. Neuralink uses custom spike-detection software for filter out false positive spikes. Their threshold was set to >0.35 Hz to quantify the number of electrodes recording spiking units. The simultaneous recording from over 3000 inserted electrodes in a freely moving rat was reported. The placement of electrodes was successful 87% of the time in 19 rats. Neuralink did not demonstrate capabilities for modulating neural activity, but state that their device is designed to be capable of electrical stimulation on every channel.
Joseph E. O’Doherty of Neuralink is one of the first co-authors on a paper published in BioRxiv in April 2019 with a team of researchers in Brazil, Russia and at Duke University. The paper described monkeys using brain-machine-brain interface that learned to interpret intracortical microstimulation of the primary somatosensory cortex (S1) and propose the potential to encorporate their approach into upper-limb neuroprostheses.
Supin Chen and Vanessa M. Tolosa of Neuralink are authors on a Journal of Neural Engineering paper describing the design and fabrication of silicon insertion shuttles for faster, easier and less damaging implantation of polymer arrays into the brain.
In August 2020, Musk revealed a "three little pigs demo," in which a pig named Gertrude had been implanted with a Neuralink implant. Musk stated the company predicted a pig’s limb movement during a treadmill run at “high accuracy” using implant data.
In April 2021, Neuralink demonstrated that a monkey named Pager with a brain implant device called "Link" was able to play the game Pong, without using a joystick and only its brain.
Elon Musk and the team at Neuralink livestream their product launch event for the N1 Sensor.
A white paper authored by Elon Musk and Neuralink was released by the company with details regarding their past experiments and the progress of the company's technological development.
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- Cluster: Artificial intelligenceA cluster of topics related to artificial intelligence.
- Cluster: Brain-computer interfaceA collection of topics, research organizations, companies and technologies related to brain-computer interface (BCI) systems, also called brain-machine interface (BMI). These devices translate neuronal information into commands that can control software or hardware like computers or robotic devices.
- Elon MuskElon Musk is a serial entrepreneur known for creating high-tech, science fiction-inspired ventures.
- Artificial intelligence (AI)Artificial intelligence (AI) is intelligence exhibited by machines.
- NanobiotechnologyThe intersection of nanotechnology and biology
- KernelKernel is a neuroscience and engineering company founded in 2016, based in Los Angeles. Kernel is developing neuroprosthetics that mimic or assist brain functions for patients with neurological and degenerative brain diseases. In the long term Kernel plans to develop less invasive brain implants that can augment human intelligence.
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