Neuralink Case Study

Originally posted on Twitter…

This semester I’ve had the opportunity to tutor ‘Biomaterials in Medicine’ (CHEE4305) & today was the most fun I’ve ever had in a class at the University of Queensland!

The topic was @elonmusk‘s revolutionary tech startup Neuralink, aiming to develop implantable brain devices.

So what makes Neuralink so revolutionary?

Historic Biomaterial revolutions – pacemakers, hip implants, bionic limbs – have changed what humans are capable of doing. However, Neuralink has the potential to change who we are as a species!

How can a Biomaterial change the identity of the human species?? What exactly is Neuralink?

This video from @ColdFusion_TV is the most accurate & succinct summary of Neuralink that I’ve come across:

We can distil Neuralink’s innovation into 2 facets.

1) Technological: developing a neuroprosthetic device capable of communicating between the brain and an external device.

2) Implantation: a neurosurgical robot capable of accurately inserting these electrodes into the brain.

But Neuralink didn’t arise from thin air, there’s been an Innovation History to this revolutionary Biomaterial.

Cochlear Implants (1957-1977):

The first device to restore a sense. A microphone detects sound, digitising it & electrically stimulates the cochlear nerve for hearing.

Deep Brain Stimulation for #Parkinsons (approved 1997):

2-10 electrodes implanted send electrical impulses to specific targets in the brain. These impulses block some of the brain signals that cause the movement symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Deep Brain Stimulation for #epilepsy (approved 2018):

A pacemaker for your brain! Monitor the brain’s electrical activity & detecting unusual activity that may lead to an epileptic seizure. In response, it can deliver an electrical pulse to prevent the seizure.

So 60+ years of innovation precede Neuralink…But some formidable challenges still exist:

Biocompatibility: stiff threads don’t match the ‘softness’ of the brain, potentially cause chronic inflammatory

Implantation: flexible threads are difficult to implant into the brain!

Size: large electrodes have serious risk of rupturing blood vessels when implanted, and are unable to record the firing of individual neurons.

..however..

Mechanical Properties: thinner electrodes are more likely to break in the brain & currently cannot be removed when broken.

Long-term effectiveness: foreign body encapsulation of the electrodes can diminish transmission of electrical signals between neurons and electrodes over time!

Biodegradation: the brain’s chemical environment should not cause the electrode to gradually deteriorate.

Considering all these challenges, it’s incredible how quickly Elon Musk’s Neuralink company has developed a functional prototype… That they plan to have in human clinical trials by December 2020!!

Following this presentation, we tasked the students with discussing the future of Neuralink from the following perspectives:

1) Technological
2) Clinical/Safety
3) Regulatory
4) Legal/IP
5) Ethical/Social
6) Patient/Family

Some very interesting brainstorming ensued!

I’m very keen to hear people’s thoughts on the future of Neuralink, so post them below! 🧠📲🤔

And let me know if you’d like to hear some of the thoughts/concerns/alarm that our @UQ_News students had about the revolutionary potential that Neuralink holds!

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