The idea of mixing brains with machines is nothing new. First proposed in the 1970s, brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) have already achieved a lot over the decades. Initial versions let people move virtual cursors, and more recent ones allow for full control of mechanical arms. As of today, the only FDA approved BMI is the Utah Array, a 1mm implant with 100 electrodes that can capture and stimulate brain cells. This array is currently on clinical trials as a treatment for several different diseases.
First announced in 2016, Neuralink entered this field with the stated goal of: “Solving important brain and spine problems with a seamlessly implanted device.” The implant, now in its version v0.9, is 23 x 8 mm and has 10 times more electrodes than the Utah Array. With functions like measuring temperature, pressure, and movement, a fast wireless connection and induction battery charging, the comparison to wearable devices is not hard to make. But it does still require brain surgery. This surgery, promised to take less than an hour, is almost completely done by an automated robot, also designed by Neuralink — at an estimated initial cost of $10-20 million.
Other concrete take home messages from yesterday's press conference was that Neuralink has been approved as an FDA Breakthrough Device, which speeds up the primary approval process with the agency. We also know that they are able to have multiple implants per animal, and they can interpret the neural data, as shown in a video that could predict the animal movement, likely through some form of machine learning algorithm. And...that was about it.
Despite claims about its potential, ranging from curing blindness to summoning your car and figuring out the secret to consciousness, the reality is that, so far, Neuralink has showed little more than a flashy new design for a BMI with more electrodes. The FDA approval might be the most exciting aspect. Given recent reports that the company culture is chaotic and clashes with a normal pace of science, regulatory oversight will be crucial to making sure that this product does not endanger people. Not to discredit the progress made by the company, but neuroscientists should not rush to stop the presses.