The Elon Musk-backed tech company Neuralink is developing a revolutionary mobility-enhancing solution which could enable people with paralysis and other neurological conditions and disabilities to operate digital devices with speed and ease through direct use of their neural activity.
The company, a start-up created by Musk’s empire, posted an update on its blog detailing how their breakthrough brain-machine interface system (BMI) has managed to enable a macaque monkey to move a cursor on a computer screen solely by its own neural actions.
“By modeling the relationship between different patterns of neural activity and intended movement directions, we can build a model (i.e., “calibrate a decoder”) that can predict the direction and speed of an upcoming or intended movement,” the announcement explains.
The idea is that, after this decoder is calibrated, the person should be able to type emails and text messages, browse the web, or anything else that can be done with a computer, just by thinking about how they want the cursor to move.
Musk said in a tweet that the product “will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs.”
First @Neuralink product will enable someone with paralysis to use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 9, 2021
Neuroscience meets sophisticated technology
The promising development was achieved by using a fully-implanted neural recording and data transmission device, termed the N1 Link.
The latter was implanted in the hand and arm-controlling areas of the motor cortex, a part of the brain that is involved in planning and executing movements.
They placed Links bilaterally: one in the left motor cortex, which controls movements of the right side of the body; and another in the right motor cortex, which controls the left side of the body.
What the Link does is to amplify and digitize the voltage recorded from each of its 1024 electrodes.
“These tiny voltage traces contain signatures of the activity of nearby neurons (called action potentials or “spikes”). Custom algorithms running aboard the Link automatically detect spikes on each electrode, which are then aggregated into vectors of spike counts,” the post says.
Every 25 milliseconds, the Link transmits these spike counts over Bluetooth signals to a computer running a custom decoding software.
That revolutionary software re-aggregates the spike counts at several timescales to account for differing temporal properties in the activity of the motor neurons before computing them for each dimension of control by passing their firing rates through a decoding model called the MindPong.
The output of the decoder is a set of velocity signals for each 25 ms bin, which are integrated over time to direct the movement of a cursor (or MindPong paddle) on a computer screen.
Great expectations from Elon Musk’s start-up
“Our first goal is to give people with paralysis their digital freedom back: to communicate more easily via text, to follow their curiosity on the web, to express their creativity through photography and art, and, yes, to play video games”, Neurolink states in the blog post.
“After that, we intend to use the Link to help improve the lives of those with neurological disorders and disabilities in other ways. For example, for people with paralysis the Link could also potentially be used to restore physical mobility.
“To achieve this, we’d use the Link to read signals in the brain and use them to stimulate nerves and muscles in the body, thereby allowing the person to once again control their own limbs,” the hopeful announcement concludes.