Neuralink, the secretive company developing brain-machine interfaces, held a press conference today where it unveiled some of the technology it's been developing to the public for the first time. The first big advance is flexible "threads," which are less likely to damage the brain than the materials currently used in brain-machine interfaces and create the possibility of transferring a higher volume of data.
"The threads are 4 to 6 micrometers in width, which makes them considerably thinner than a human hair," reports The Verge. The other big advance that Neuralink unveiled is a machine that automatically embeds the threads into the brain. From the report:
In the future, scientists from Neuralink hope to use a laser beam to get through the skull, rather than drilling holes, they said in interviews with The New York Times. Early experiments will be done with neuroscientists at Stanford University, according to that report. The company aims for human trials as soon as the second quarter of next year, according to The New York Times. The system presented today, if it's functional, may be a substantial advance over older technology. BrainGate relied on the Utah Array, a series of stiff needles that allows for up to 128 electrode channels. Not only is that fewer channels than Neuralink is promising -- meaning less data from the brain is being picked up -- it's also stiffer than Neuralink's threads. That's a problem for long-term functionality: the brain shifts in the skull but the needles of the array don't, leading to damage. The thin polymers Neuralink is using may solve that problem.
However, Neuralink's technology is more difficult to implant than the Utah Array, precisely because it's so flexible. To combat that problem, the company has developed "a neurosurgical robot capable of inserting six threads (192 electrodes) per minute [automatically]," according to the white paper. In photos, it looks something like a cross between a microscope and a sewing machine. It also avoids blood vessels, which may lead to less of an inflammatory response in the brain, the paper says. Finally, the paper says that Neuralink has developed a custom chip that is better able to read, clean up, and amplify signals from the brain. Right now, it can only transmit data via a wired connection (it uses USB-C), but ultimately the goal is to create a system than can work wirelessly.
Currently, the company is testing the robot and threads on rats, but it's hoping to actually begin working with human test subjects as early as next year.