A mess of cables and two devices the size of soda cans pop out of Austin Beggin’s head as he tests a team of researchers studying brain implants to restore function to people with paralysis.
Despite the clunky outfit, these are the moments when Beggin feels most free. He became quadriplegic after suffering a diving accident eight years ago, and the brain device picks up the electrical signals generated by his brain when he thinks about moving his arm. The device transmits these signals to wrists positioned over the main nerves in your arm. This allows him to do things he hasn’t been able to do on his own since the accident, like lift a pretzel and put it in his mouth.
“It’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity or ever had the privilege and blessing to think ‘when I want to open my hand, I open it,'” said Beggin, 30. Days like these are always special for him.
The work done at the Cleveland Center for Functional Electrical Stimulation represents cutting-edge research in the field of brain-computer interface, connecting the brain to the arm to restore movement.
It’s an area Elon Musk wants to see moving forward. In a recent presentation, the entrepreneur announced that brain implants created by his company Neuralink will one day help restore sight to the blind or restore full body functionality to people like Beggin. Musk also said the Neuralink device will make it possible for anyone to use phones and other machines with new levels of speed and efficiency.
But neuroscientists and Beggin alike think it will take decades for such huge advances to materialize. Scientists who have received approval to test these devices on humans are making millimeter strides toward restoring normal function in typing, speech, and limited movement. The researchers warn that the goal is much more difficult to reach and more dangerous than it might seem. And they point out that it may never be possible to achieve Elon Musk’s goals, even if they are worth it.
“It’s fun to think of science-fiction scenarios that describe what the world might look like in the future,” said Paul Nuyujukian, a professor of bioengineering and neurosurgery at Stanford University who has spent years working on similar technology. “But given where we are with the science today, it’s not clear how these scenarios could play out.”
Scientists at Neuralink’s Nov. 30 event and those following along online agree that what Musk showcased was an elegant collection of some of the best ideas in the field, which has been around for decades. They recognized that replacing that soda can-sized device sticking out of a patient’s head would indeed be an important step forward.
Neuralink’s prototype would eliminate that problem, but only after patients undergo robotic surgery to drill a hole in their heads a little larger than a 10-cent piece. After that, the robot weaves 1,024 electrodes into cobweb-thin threads in the brain’s gray matter and deposits the device, which resembles an ice hockey puck, into the hole.
With such delicate work, some researchers in the field fear that a single misstep could erase years of progress.
“The messages we hear from Neuralink often sound like unreliable activity, don’t they?” said Marcus Gerhardt, chief executive of Blackrock Microsystems, a company working in the brain-computer interfaces business that could become Elon Musk’s rival.
Gerhardt said the neurosurgeons who work with his company “are scared to death every day that something terrible could happen there and affect the rest of the field.”
Beggin is one of about three dozen people who have had a device called the “Utah matrix” implanted in their brains for research purposes. The device includes a small grid of electrodes dipped into your brain to a depth of just 2 millimeters. It connects to a portal mounted over their heads and, via cables, to another computer.
Most of the days that Beggin spends working with the Cleveland Center research team involve looking at a moving arm or hand on a computer screen and visualizing himself performing the same movement. This allows scientists to detect the activation patterns of neurons in your brain that give rise to each movement. Those signals are communicated to a system that manipulates eight nerves in your arm to make it move, said A. Bolu Ajiboye, a professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve University whose team has been working with patients like Beggin.
The work can be tedious, Beggin said, but it’s worth it for the days he can move his hand. His experience stems from work done with a previous volunteer, also a quadriplegic, who, using the system, managed to get a forkful of mashed potatoes to his mouth.
Beggin did not attend the Neuralink presentation last week. But he said he was shocked to hear that Musk had floated the idea of ”total body functionality” for paralyzed people.
Academic teams across the country are working on projects that aim to restore function to people with physical disabilities or degenerative diseases. Scientists are working to map the brain’s visual center so that points of light can be projected into the mind’s eye to help blind people see shapes and letters. Other teams are working to translate neural electricity into speech, cursor control, handwriting and typing applications.
Several companies, including Neuralink, are working on fully implantable devices. In Austin, Texas, startup Paradromics is developing a device that will be placed inside the skull. New York’s Synchron takes a different approach, making an incision in the chest and pushing a tube-shaped device into an artery near the brain. This avoids the dangers of brain surgery, but the signal the device picks up from the brain is considerably weaker.
As promising as the technology is, scientists say it has very little to offer the average consumer, as it only approaches the speed and precision of a healthy person’s bodily control.
According to Ajiboye, it looks like that is about to change. He compared the field to the computer industry in the 1980s, when it was heading for a revolution. “I firmly believe that we are on the same starting curve when it comes to understanding brain mechanisms,” he said.
During Neuralink’s presentation, a video showed a monkey named Pager allegedly using a prototype implant in its brain to move a cursor across a computer screen. Musk’s team also showed off the inner workings of the device, impressing some of the neuroscientists who attended the event.
During the event Elon Musk announced that Neuralink is seeking authorization from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test the device on humans. He made a guess: he said that the clinical trial will start in 2023.
It would be a notable advance. Other scientists have tested wireless devices on humans, but Neuralink has built a chip smaller, faster and potentially far more powerful than anything that came before it.
“Basically, they’ve taken a lot of the best ideas from the best names in this field and paid them to put them all together into a new system,” said Cristin Welle, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado and former director of the FDA’s Brain Implant Laboratory and consultant on devices. “I find that exciting. It remains to be seen whether they can really overcome all the technical hurdles to prove that the brain chip is indeed safe.”
If the FDA gives Neuralink the go-ahead, it will decide when the trial starts. The agency will pay close attention to the device’s durability, given the risks and feasibility of a patient having repeated brain surgeries, Welle said. That means the device’s creators will have to overcome the challenge of operating electronic components in the wet environment of the brain. They will also have to prove that their supercomputing device won’t generate heat or electrical current that would unduly damage delicate brain tissue, she said.
If and when Neuralink begins human testing, it would be restricted to people who have a real need for the technology, likely people with spinal injuries or other forms of paralysis.
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