The Neuralink chip is a piece of technology that’s hoped will one day allow people to operate devices like phones and computers using their thoughts. Its creator, tech mogul Elon Musk, describes it as a “Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires.” Musk hopes to develop it so that we’ll eventually see Neuralink cure paralysis, blindness and mental illness.
The chip recently received approval from the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) to conduct its first tests on humans (more on this later). On the flipside, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for social and human sciences voiced concern that unless regulated properly and extensively, AI-powered BCIs like Neuralink can be used to read your thoughts, and even change the way you think.
There’s also scepticism about the chip’s capabilities vs what Musk says it will be able to do. Amid the controversy you may be wondering what Neuralink could do for those living with disability.
We delve into that in this article.
In this article
What is the Neuralink chip?
Musk and a group of engineers founded Neuralink in 2016 after receiving more than AUS$235 million in funding. The start-up created a tiny computer chip interface that can be implanted into the skull and connect the brain to a computer. The chip processes neural signals from the brain and transmits them to tech devices to operate them.
The company aims to enable a person to control devices with only their thoughts, for instance a mouse or keyboard, and other computer functions like text messaging. It also aims to give cyborg limbs to amputees.
Musk wants Neuralink to not only connect the brain to tech, but to restore neural activity in damaged parts of the brain and body. This would enable those with spinal cord injuries to move their limbs, and could effectively cure paralysis, blindness, mental illness, and neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. The long-term ambition is for the technology to allow humans to compete with artificial intelligence.
The latest Neuralink presentation to stakeholders happened in December 2022. Musk gave information on the team’s progress and plans for the future. He stated that he plans to get the implant himself soon. Learn more about the science of Neuralink, below:
Can Neuralink cure paralysis?
The brain contains millions of neurons that control our thoughts, feelings and movements.
Electrical impulses travel down a complex series of pathways from the brain to end neurons in other parts of the body. If, for instance, you want to get up from your chair, your brain fires electrons that instruct your legs to move. This happens in split seconds.
Paralysis occurs when those neural pathways in the spinal cord are destroyed or impaired.
Signals through the Neuralink chip
Because the Neuralink chip is able to capture the brain’s signals, it can send them to the limbs even when the spinal cord is damaged. To do this, the person would have a Neuralink chip in their brain as well as below the damaged spinal cord section. With enough training, the person would have a chance to walk again, and Neuralink could cure paralysis.
Can Neuralink cure blindness?
The Neuralink chip is being developed to restore pathways from the brain to the body. As mentioned above, the main chip could communicate with a chip below the injured spinal cord section to allow people who are paralysed to walk again. This same concept could be applied for a myriad of uses, and that includes blindness.
For blindness, the chip in the brain would communicate with 64 tiny wires implanted by a Neuralink surgical robot into the visual cortex. Through this, Neuralink can bypass the eye and generate a visual image directly into the brain.
So, what visual image would you see? The user would have to wear a GoPro style digital camera, which would wirelessly transmit a live visual feed via Bluetooth onto a mobile device. The phone then converts that image data into a neural signal, which is transplanted back into the Neuralink chip. The chip then transmits this neural signal into the brain, allowing you to see.
Can Neuralink cure mental illness?
In a 2020 tweet, Twitter user Pranay Pathole asked the billionaire entrepreneur:
“Can Neuralink be used to retrain the part of the brain which is responsible for causing addiction or depression? It’d be great if Neuralink can be used for something like addiction/ depression.”
Musk replied: “For sure. This is both great and terrifying. Everything we’ve ever sensed or thought has been electrical signals. The early universe was just a soup of quarks and leptons. How did a very small piece of the universe start to think of itself as sentient?”
It’s still unclear exactly how this will be done. What we do know is that Neuralink scientists are working on a treatment that involves applying electrodes to a spot in the brain called the internal capsule. The electrodes stimulate connections to the prefrontal cortex to improve certain cognitive functions.
The same “deep brain stimulation” could be beneficial to those with other forms of mental illness. The Neuralink device would combat these diseases temporarily while patients seek treatment.
According to Tesla.Rati: “Having a Neuralink device installed into the brain of someone who has anxiety or depression disorders could help give patients a taste of what everyday life is like. It could provide a surge of positivity into the lives of those who are affected by the crippling diseases.”
Perhaps one day we’ll be able to add Neuralink to the list of ways to celebrate World Braille Day!
At the end of May 2023, the FDA approved Neuralink to begin human trials.
“We are excited to share that we have received the FDA’s approval to launch our first-in-human clinical study!” the company said in a statement on Twitter. It’s “an important first step that one day will allow our technology to help many people.”
Neuralink stated that recruitment for the trials are not yet open, and that it would release more information in the future. The plan, however, is to recruit patients with severe spinal cord injuries to test how safe and effective the chip is in restoring movement and sensation.
So far, the company has tested the chip on animals, and reported an “adverse surgical event” in August 2019. This resulted in a federal probe into animal-welfare violations, but as of July 2023 the regulator says they found no animal welfare breaches beyond the 2019 incident.
In the company’s animal trials, the chip was shown to be safe and effective in restoring movement and sensation in monkeys with spinal cord injuries. The monkeys were able to use it to control a robotic arm, and they were also able to feel sensations such as touch and pain.
Human trials are expected to begin in the next few months. The trials will be closely watched by the medical community, as they could represent a major breakthrough in the treatment of spinal cord injuries.
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