Hacking our brain with Elon Musk’s Neuralink chip

by Nicoline Hollander

Elon Musk, inventor of self-driving, bullet-resistant cars and the latest launched space shuttle, is now pushing the limits of nature even further. Besides Tesla and SpaceX, he founded another company that is catching people’s interest, named Neuralink.

This company combines artificial intelligence with neuroscience to make people’s disability disappear. He created a chip that enables you to move objects and regain functions with your mind. Here’s how it works and what else we can expect from this self-proclaimed Iron Man.

Think of a hearing device (cochlear implant) for people who are deaf. It catches sound from our surrounding, transforms this into a digital code, and artificially stimulates neurons that are connected to the auditive centre. Similarly, the Neuralink chip receives signals from the upper layer of the brain and generates an output signal that could not be created by the defective nerves. In this way, paralysis can be restored: one chip records the brain’s intended action and a second chip stimulates the nerves in your lower limbs to make you walk again.

Elon adapted his idea from the Utah Slant Electrode Array (USEA) but made his chip more suitable for clinical use. For example, the stiff electrode pins of the USEA caused tissue damage, initiating dangerous immune responses in the brain. Therefore, Elon created flexible pins that are 10 times thinner and keep the surrounding tissue intact. Moreover, the electrodes now pick up signals with even higher precision, which enhances accuracy of the motor response. 

He received FDA approval and demonstrated the chip in real-time during his Neuralink presentation in August. The chip could record smelling in pigs and predict movement of their legs with very high accuracy. After the demo, Elon announces that the first trial has started in patients with severe spinal cord injury. He claims that the surgical implantation only takes an hour and will be as affordable as eye lasering. He plans to release the chip on the market at the end of this year. However, this might be somewhat overenthusiastic, because he has a record of unfinished projects.

The genius also reveals his view on the future of brain implants during the presentation. His next goal is to treat brain disorders, such as Parkinson’s and anxiety. Another crazy application would be to save your memories on the chip and replay them whenever you want to. “You could even control your body inside a robot body, like Iron Man”, he jokes. “Yeah…the future is going to be weird”.