Your next upgrade? The Brain Machine Interface (BMI)

Watching the presentation that Elon Musk gave on Neuralink is quite inspirational on potential cures for brain related illnesses. However, something like a Brain Machine Interface (BMI) looks both frightening and intriguing.

Elon Musk’s presentation of Neuralink

I’m sure you may know someone who suffers from a brain related ailment.

My late mother suffered from Parkinsons disease and it was difficult and sad to see the loss of her motor skills over time. The only options for treatment at the time were through medication which just controlled the symptoms.

One new treatment is deep brain simulation for Parkinsons for patients suffering the disease. Around 100,000 patients suffering the disease have undergone this technique since 1997. But it is still very invasive and risky.

Brain Machine Interfaces (BMI)

The theory is to implant a device in the brain that can receive neural signals out of the brain but also transmit signals back to stimulate the brain.

Brain Machine Interfaces - Read neural signals and transmit neural signals to the brain

This can allow a deaf patient to get their hearing back or hear for the first time through an implant. These were first pioneered in 1957 when the first Cochlear implants were used to restore hearing in deaf patients.

The device has to be inside the brain because the Neurons which transmit the brain signals and communicate messages are only effective up to 60 microns. Such a device needs to be located in the brain to measure those signals. The spikes from the neurons are what communicates the messages around the brain.

60 microns to measure neurons
60 microns to measure neurons

Current technology such as the Cochlear implants is quite invasive. The challenge that Neuralinks is trying to overcome is a brain-machine interface that is:

  • Completely Wireless no wires coming out of the head.
  • Implant has to be least invasive as possible to reduce infection chances.
  • Gives years to decade of use
  • Practical bandwidth for processing the data.
  • Useable at home i.e. doesn’t require continuous medical intervention.

Using a custom robot for the implant

To perform such an operation in such a sensitive area of the body requires a robot guided by a neurosurgeon to implant the threads into the brain. It can navigate the complex environment of the brain avoiding blood vessels in a living patient. This robot that has been designed to achieve a high degree of accuracy and repeatability to implant the device into the brain.

Robot to implant the pods.
Robot to implant the pods.

Human trials in 2020?

In the July 2019 announcement, Elon Musk hoped this could be trialled in a human patient as early as 2020 (subject to FDA approval).

The trial aims to test the technology that one day can be implemented in much the same way as laser eye surgery is done today.

The implant would transmit wirelessly to a receiver at the back of the ear like a hearing aid. Which in turn, would be controlled by an app on your smartphone. Is that the ultimate smartphone upgrade?

The plans for the first human trials in 2020 will look at using this operation on a patient suffering from quadriplegia due to C1-C4 spinal cord injury. They will get four 1,024-channel sensors that will record the activity fully wirelessly and will be able to use at home.

The custom chips that Neuralink has produced to meet the brief is the N1 chip:

N1 sensor to be embedded in skull
N1 sensor to be embedded in skull
Implant then sits behind the ear.
Implant then sits behind the ear.

Standing on the shoulders of giants.

All this sounds quite amazing and far fetched but it goes back to research that has spanned almost a century. Many dedicated researchers have spent years exploring what makes the brain work.

Applications for Brain Machine interface

As mentioned above taking the reading from the brain shows spiking activity and using decoding algorithms to capture the intended movement. This analysis provides an ability to interprept the brain signals.

Similarly, this could then be used to send signals back to the brain to control movements, simulate touch or even restore sight.

Brain Mind Interface - Leg / Trunk/ Arm / Hand / Neck / Face / Speech
Restoration of leg, trunk, arm, hand, neck, face and speech

Another use is that one day this would allow even a quadriplegic to be able to control artificial limbs and be able to walk again.

Sensory feedback - Perhaps even able to restore sight
Perhaps even able to help restore sight
Closed-Loop therapies - Parkinson's / Dystoria / OCD / Epilepsy / Depression / Chronic pain / Tinnitus
Closed-Loop therapies – Parkinson’s / Dystoria / OCD / Epilepsy / Depression / Chronic pain / Tinnitus

There are many people who suffer with crushing problems such as depression, chronic pain and tinnitus and these techniques offer some hope for these conditions in the future.

The future…

It will be interesting to see how this research develops. At a personal level my wife has suffered with severe tinnitus for 10 years and I know how difficult dealing with these conditions can be. I really hope that this research continues to bear fruit.

Current development seems to be trialling the technology in rats or monkeys which is a sensitive topic. However it makes sense to do that before even contemplating on a human scale. How this develops in humans needs to be carefully managed and monitored under the appropriate regulation.

Elon Musk also mentioned the need for this technology in order to embed humans in artificial intelligence before it gets beyond our ability to control. The so called singularity when the narrow AI we have today becomes true Artificial General intelligence. I think we are a long way off that possibility, but you never know…

In the near future we could see a commercially viable implant that allows people with limited movement to control a smart phone or a computer using an implant. This would be life changing for a quadriplegic patient.

The technology is going to give a world of possibilities if the neurons in the brain can be understood.

What are your thoughts would you consider having a literal link to your smartphone?

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1 Response

  1. Michael kennedy says:

    Some non-invasive examples Wired article

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