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  • Tech Journalist

NeuraLink's plan: helping the Blind to See and the Lame to Walk

Neuralink, a company that is one of five companies led by Musk, is developing technology to drag thousands of hair-thin electrodes to the outside of the human brain. Each electrode is a tiny wire connected to a battery-operated, remote-controlled chip package the size of a quarter that is inserted around the skull. The chip called N1 communicates with the outside world wirelessly.

The company is making significant progress, including filing with the Food and Drug Administration to begin human trials it hopes to begin within six months.

Neuralink startup, which hopes to connect our brains directly to computers, showed progress in two areas of medicine: helping the blind walk and people with spinal cord injuries. The goal is to turn on the lights in a person who has lived in the dark for decades, according to a researcher at Neuralink.

Neuralink looks more complicated than a social network. Connecting computer hardware to our own hardware presents enormous technical, legal, and ethical challenges. Helping blind people see is one thing, but feeding digital directly into our brains may not help those who already spend too much time on their phones.

Neuralink technology helps quadriplegia walk.

Neuralink computers learned to interpret motor control signals. Neuralink shows how its electrodes can listen to brain activity by sampling the brain signals of a monkey named Pager playing the classic video game Pong. Later, the monkey's brain signals were able to control the game.

Neuralink's approach involves capturing movement commands from the brain and sending them to the legs, hearing sensory signals from the limbs, and sending the message back to the brain to help the brain understand what's going on. In one experiment, electrodes were used in the spinal cord of a pig to control various leg movements. This technology could eventually help people with quadriplegia walk or use their hands.

Neuralink connection between the human brain and spinal cord

Neuralink has made progress toward its goal of using its N1 chip to capture signals from the brain and redirect them past spinal cord damage so that paralyzed people can walk again.

Seeing Images and Writing with the Mind

Another experiment fed visual data recorded by a camera into a monkey's visual cortex, showing virtual flashes of it that the monkey interpreted in different places. This is the technology that Neuralink hopes will lead to a prosthetic vision for the blind.

The first-generation Neuralink technology uses 102 electrodes, but Neuralink introduced next-generation models with more than 16,000 electrodes. That much detail would significantly improve the accuracy of the image seen by a blind person.

Another Neuralink application allows paralyzed people to use their implants for mental writing. Neuralink would give the confidence that someone with no other interface to the outside world would be able to control their phone better than a person with moving hands.

Elon Musk envisions Neuralink making millions of brain chips and expects to do the same.

Its robot screws electrodes into the brain without damaging blood vessels, but the next-generation machine is designed to handle more surgeries, including cutting the skull. The company tries to automate as much technology as possible to achieve this goal.

Neuralink also aims to place its brain chip one layer beyond the brain, outside a layer called the dura mater. This requires major changes.

Academic researchers have produced a steady stream of research, and start-ups such as BlackRock Neurotech, Synchron and Paradromics are also active. Some, like Nuro, use non-invasive approaches that don't require surgery. The distinction between Neuralink and other trials is the goal and capacity of mass production.


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