The development of Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs), sometimes known as neural interfaces, is a quickly growing field of study and expertise. While many references to this theoretical technology have been made in science-fiction novels of decades past, new research and ventures around the globe are revealing potentially viable strides in this area. One of the most commonly cited and researched areas is BMI applications for spinal cord injury (SCI) patients, who may often lose control of limbs or movement due to their injury. In simplified terms per the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, “BMI systems analyze brain signals to allow control of devices that are used to assist SCI patients. Such devices may include a computer, robotic arm, or exoskeleton. Limb reanimation technologies, which include functional electrical stimulation, epidural stimulation, and intraspinal microstimulation systems, activate neuronal pathways below the level of the SCI.”
In a similar fashion, neural engineering company Neuralink is Elon Musk’s venture into this technology. The company was founded just a few years ago, with a goal to research, develop, and potentially scale this technology to use for a wide array of applications. The company states: “We are creating the future of brain interfaces: building devices now that will help people with paralysis and inventing new technologies that will expand our abilities, our community, and our world.”
Indeed, the website includes the “approach” for their most recent project, based on “designing the first neural implant that will let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.” The actual hardware entails a system where “Micron-scale threads are inserted into areas of the brain that control movement. Each thread contains many electrodes and connects them to an implant, the Link.” The system can reportedly be charged by an inductive charger that “wirelessly connects to the implant to charge the battery from the outside.” Given that the implant requires microscopic precision to be inserted into the brain, the company is also developing a robotic system that can help with the surgical procedure.
The company has bold aspirations for this technology: “BMIs are technologies that enable a computer or other digital device to communicate directly with the brain. For example, through information readout from the brain, a person with paralysis can control a computer mouse or keyboard. Or, information can be written back into the brain, for example to restore the sense of touch. Our goal is to build a system with at least two orders of magnitude more communication channels (electrodes) than current clinically-approved devices. This system needs to be safe, it must have fully wireless communication through the skin, and it has to be ready for patients to take home and use on their own. Our device, called the Link, will be able to record from 1024 electrodes and is designed to meet these criteria.”
The company held a “progress update” presentation in late August, a part of which was shared on its Twitter page:
Snout Boops https://t.co/ZJogq2ulvf
— Neuralink (@neuralink) August 30, 2020
Of course, safety is a significant concern, as BMI technology often directly interacts with the human brain. Neuralink states: “We have not yet begun clinical trials, and so we do not have safety data in humans. But safety has been at the core of the design process. In particular, the Link includes technical innovations for improving the safety of the surgical procedure compared to existing BMI devices or traditional neurosurgery.” Regarding the actual implant itself, the company mentions: “Inserting a device into the brain always carries some risk of bleeding. We are trying to reduce that risk by using micron-scale threads, inserted with a needle whose diameter is about the size of many neurons in the brain. Furthermore, because each thread is individually inserted, we are designing the Neurosurgical Robot to avoid damaging blood vessels at or near the surface of the brain.”
Ultimately, the company states: “The initial goal of our technology will be to help people with paralysis to regain independence through the control of computers and mobile devices.”
Indeed, given that this is such a rapidly developing area of science and medicine, more time is needed to fully investigate the potential viability, safety concerns, long-term effects, and applications of this technology. Therefore, the developers of this technology, alongside clinicians, consumers, regulatory leaders, and the scientific community must maintain the highest standards in ensuring that these emerging technologies have been thoroughly tested, supported, and proven, in order to ultimately prioritize patient safety. However, if this technology can be safely developed and eventually perfected in a scalable fashion, it may potentially hold significant clinical applications.
The content of this article is not implied to be and should not be relied on or substituted for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment by any means, and is not written or intended as such. This content is for information and news purposes only. Consult with a trained medical professional for medical advice.