What you need to know about human brain implants

Elon Musk’s Neuralink startup implanted a computer chip in a person’s brain on Sunday, it said Monday in a post on its X platform, although it offered few details.

Other companies doing similar work are further along in the research process (for example, Synchron has been enrolling and implanting people in its trial since 2021) and consumers won’t be able to access the technology anytime soon.

But if the technology works, it could one day benefit people who otherwise couldn’t move or communicate and could have broader health applications. Here’s what you should know about brain implants.

What is a human brain implant?

Researchers say a brain-computer interface will allow a person to use their thoughts to control a device such as a computer or phone.

How does it work?

Doctors implant these types of devices on the surface of the brain or deep within it.

Neuralink equipment is about the size of a coin; Synchron is a small stent-like device that is inserted into the blood vessels of the brain. The devices include several electrodes that cannot read a person’s thoughts, but essentially observe and interpret signals sent by neurons, nerve cells that use electricity and chemicals to send signals from your brain to the rest of your body to help you move, breathe, and breathe. , talk and eat.

“Using the recent advances in computers that have occurred in the last 30 or 40 years, we have finally had enough processing power to build and train mathematical algorithms to make estimates of what that information might look like, and we finally have the processing power to do those estimates in real time,” said Dr. Paul Nuyujukian, a professor of bioengineering and neurosurgery who directs the Brain Interface Laboratory at Stanford University.

Although the technology is newer, he said, the work is based on basic science about how the brain controls movement that scientists have understood for more than 100 years.

What makes this technology work?

Previous technology had to be connected to a computer. Neuralink’s device is powered by a wirelessly chargeable battery and can communicate wirelessly with the Neuralink app, which decodes the data into action and intent, according to the company. The Synchron device is connected to a telemetry unit that is connected to a computer.

How will these devices be used?

The initial goal is to help someone who has suffered a stroke or who has a degenerative motor disease such as ALS or other physical problems to communicate directly through the implant with an external device such as a phone, tablet or computer.

In 2021, Neuralink demonstrated how this worked with a monkey named Pager, which had two of these wireless devices implanted in its brain. The devices allowed Pager to control a cursor with his thoughts and play a game called “mind pong.”

When will these devices be available?

“Nothing in this field happens overnight,” Nuyujukian said. He and other academics have been working on this type of research for decades, but technical innovation has increased in the last five to ten years as more neural engineering companies have gotten into the business.

However, it takes time to get devices like this through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval process because “the risk to individual safety is high,” he said. Risks may include bleeding or infections. It can often take 10 to 20 years for a device to gain approval, especially one involving such new technology.

However, Nuyujukian is confident that technology will help people in the future.

“There is no reason why this should not be successful,” he said. “The science is there and it’s solid and it’s been there for decades, and that gives me a lot of confidence.

“It’s doable.”

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