Neuralink is a neurotechnology company founded by Elon Musk that’s building an implantable, brain-computer interface capable of translating thought into action. Launched in 2016, the private venture claims its neural device will allow people with paraplegia to regain movement and restore vision to those born blind.
What Is Neuralink?
Neuralink is a company founded by Elon Musk in 2016 that’s developing a brain-computer interface called “the Link,” which is a surgically embedded neural-chip implant designed to decode and stimulate brain activity.
“The device is designed to connect human brains directly to computers,” Ramses Alcaide, CEO of Neurable, a neurotech company developing non-invasive, brain-computer interfaces in the form of headphones, told Built In. “[Neuralink’s technology] is capable of recording and decoding neural signals and then transmitting information back to the brain using electrical stimulation.”
The implant itself is called “the Link.” This coin-sized brain chip is surgically embedded under the skull, where it receives information from neural threads that fan out into different sections of a subject’s brain in control of motor skills. Each wire contains 1,024 electrodes, which are sensors capable of recording and emitting electrical currents, and are “so fine and flexible that they can’t be inserted by the human hand,” according to Neuralink’s website. That’s why Neuralink has built a neurosurgical robot that’s designed to become fully automated.
The company is also developing an app that would allow a person to manipulate a keyboard and mouse using only their mind.
“Neuralink is really at the vanguard of creating the commercialized, scalable versions of what has been pioneered in academia,” said Sumner Norman, a scientist at nonprofit startup Convergent Research and former chief brain-computer interface scientist at software firm AE Studio.
“There’s been decades of academic research to push this [field] as far as it can go,” he said, “but ultimately, it becomes a very expensive space to develop.”
How Does Neuralink Work?
Neuralink’s underlying technology works in the same way as electrophysiology, Norman explained.
The electrical chemical signals in our nervous system spark as neurons communicate with one another across gaps between nerve cells known as synapses. This brain activity is captured by electrodes, or sensors that detect voltages, measuring the change in “spikes” of when these voltages fire (or potentially fire).
In other words, our brain activity data is captured not only when we take action, but also if we think about taking action.
That’s not to say the brain-computer interfacing that Neuralink does is on the same level as mind reading.
“It simply measures the brain activity and interprets it as an action,” said Sonal Baberwal, a Dublin City University-based researcher developing machine learning algorithms built into brain computer interface wearables.
Baberwal likened this procedure to how blood pressure interprets a patient’s level of stress or relaxation.
“Similarly with your brain signals — eyes closed or opened, a relaxed or deep-sleep state, an action or focus state — all of these aspects can be detected,” she added.
What Will Neuralink Do?
According to Neuralink’s website, the company’s initial goal is to help those immobilized by paralysis regain lost skills of communication. Down the line, it intends to pursue restoring motor, sensory and visual functions as well as treatment of neurological disorders.
“A Neuralink-like device has the potential to enhance human memory, processing speed and cognitive abilities by creating a direct interface between the human brain and digital devices,” Alcaide said.
Brain-computer interfaces can be used to control prosthetics or exoskeletons. This use case would enable people with paralysis or amputations to regain a certain level of mobility and independence, according to Alcaide.
Improve Communication for Non-verbal Individuals
Neuralink’s main focus is to help people who are unable to speak or write communicate with others by allowing them to control a virtual mouse, keyboard or send messages by thought.
For example, someone with paraplegia would be able to manipulate a computer or mobile device using speech or text synthesis to surf the web and create digital art.
Treat Neurological Conditions
By monitoring brain activity, brain-computer interfaces can also detect changes that may indicate neurological conditions such as epilepsy, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, Alcaide said.
They can also be used to monitor mental health symptoms. Electrical stimulation could be delivered to targeted areas in the brain as a treatment for burnout, fatigue, anxiety and depression, which, unlike motor skills that are localized to one area, are spread throughout the brain, Norman noted.
“Treating or curing paralysis, neurological disorders and injuries could make the world a substantially nicer place, where very few people have untreatable forms of depression or anxiety,” said Norman, who has spent a decade developing brain-computer interfaces and neuroprosthetics for people with neurological injury or disease. “Giving agency back to those who’ve lost it — that’s an undeniable benefit.”
Enhance Cognitive Abilities
This tech can also help people improve their focus, memory and attention by allowing them to train their brain using real-time biofeedback and other techniques. In Musk’s words, the Link is a sort of “Fitbit in your skull” with “all the sensors you’d expect to see in a smartwatch.”
“If suddenly you could get every neuron in the human brain and sense them all at once, what would you actually do with that data?” We don’t know,” Norman said. “There’s 80 billion neurons in the brain with about 1,000 synapses in between them — how do you interpret that kind of data?”
Neuralink’s technology is currently detecting up to 10,000 of these connections — a big step up from the hundreds being studied in academic trials, Norman said.
Is Neuralink FDA Approved?
Yes. Neuralink announced on May 25, 2023 that it has received U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance for an in-human clinical trial. The company has not yet opened recruitment for the trial, but shared in a tweet that the company would “announce more information on this soon.”
Is Neuralink Being Used on Humans?
To date, the neural implant has only been tested on rats, mice, monkeys, sheep and pigs. But that might change soon with the human trial underway.
Frequently Asked Questions
What does Neuralink actually do?
Neuralink is an implant that can monitor and stimulate brain activity using electrical currents.
Neuralink aims to help people with paralysis communicate by allowing them to remotely control devices using brain activity. In the future, Neuralink may help enhance user memory and cognitive abilities, restore a user's motor, sensory and visual functions as well as treat neurological disorders.
What are the risks of Neuralink?
The potential risks of Neuralink include:
- Brain injury or infection
- Physical side effects like bleeding, headaches, nausea or seizures
- Psychological side effects like mood changes
- Allergic reaction to implanted materials
- Movement of implanted threads and wires to other parts of the brain
- Cybersecurity, hacking and privacy vulnerabilities
- Unknown long-term effects of use
Who is eligible for Neuralink?
Those eligible for participating in future Neuralink clinical trials must:
- Be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in the United States.
- Be at least 18 years old and the age of majority in their state.
- Have quadriplegia, paraplegia, visual impairment or blindness, hearing impairment or deafness and/or aphasia or the inability to speak.
- Be able to consent to participation.