Elon Musk’s brain implant company Neuralink is his venture into an experimental medical industry known as BCI or Brain Computer Interface. Neuralink’s work delved in implanting devices into pigs and monkeys including an infamous monkey who can play pong by just using his thoughts with the chip implanted in his brain. This was made possible due to the digital telepathy enabled by BCI technology. Brain Computer Interface has been granted permission for human trials for the first time in the United States. However, the first BCI procedure to be approved by the FDA is not going to be a Neuralink, rather it is a device called the stentrode from a competing private company called Synchron.
The brain is basically a ball of electrically charged meat. It controls the rest of the body by generating specific electrical signals, firing them out through the nerves and into the organs and muscles. Those electrical pulses are like the programming language of the human body. Your brain is sending command prompts through the spinal cord. But sometimes that connection between the brain and the body gets broken, either by a physical injury or degenerative disease. BCI can help patients with such ailments by rectifying the broken connection. Existing BCI technologies can be divided into invasive and non-invasive. Non-invasive BCIs include the bizarre looking hats with electrode sensors all over it. This can read the electrical signals from the brain but it doesn’t do a very good job at that. This is because there is an entire skull in between the sensors and the neurons. The current industry standard for invasive BCI is called the ‘Utah Array’. It is a square computer chip with a whole bunch of spikes coming out of it which attaches itself directly to the brain. This process, on the face of it, seems quite brutal but the spikes can quickly and easily read the electrical signals from the cortex of the brain which are then read by the computer and the translated into computer code. This allows the person with the brain implant to control electronic devices. The downside to this method is that it is limited to use only in medical research because this process is not sustainable. Even the tissues around the incision start to reject this foreign body by inflammation.
The new generation of BCI led by companies like Neuralink and Synchron have endeavoured to solve this problem in their own ways. The stentrode created by Synchron, is basically a stent containing a mesh of electrodes which is inserted in the jugular vein and the stent part is pulled out. This stentrode is then connected to a small computer device that is planted inside the chest cavity of the patient. However, since the device is in the blood vessel and not actually inside the cortex tissue. Hence the signal coming out of the stentrode is limited and can’t match the bandwidth of the Utah Array. Neuralink has tried to solve this problem by using a robotic sewing machine to insert carefully and accurately, incredibly fine and flexible electrode wires into the outer cortex layer. Each device contains thousands of these wires giving maximum bandwidth. The computer machine that is attached to these wires is so small that it fits perfectly inside the new hollow void of the skull.
The technology is still in testing stages and has also received criticisms from many people for providing the authorities to invade into the most private space of a human being, their mind. What fruits it bears and what consequences it has for the humans is a tale time will tell.
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