Cover News reporters Xue Bian and Xiaoyu Ma
On January 29th, Elon Musk announced on social media that his brain-computer interface company, Neuralink, had implanted a brain chip in the first human patient. Named “Telepathy,” Neuralink’s debut product allows users to control phones or computers simply through their thoughts, offering the ability to manipulate almost any device. According to Musk, the patient is recovering well.
Neuralink was founded in 2016 and operates primarily on Musk’s personal funding. Initially, the company aimed to use brain-computer interface technology to assist individuals with cerebral palsy in controlling smartphones or computers. The ambition has since grown to employ these implantable devices for treating memory loss, cervical spinal cord injuries, and other neurological disorders, ultimately helping paralyzed individuals to walk again.
Elon Musk. (Image source: Neuralink’s official website)
In May of the previous year, Neuralink received approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration to initiate the first human clinical trials of its brain implant device. In August and November 2023, the company raised approximately $323 million in funding over two rounds. Musk envisions providing everyone with brain chip products to facilitate better communication between humans and computers, a step he believes is crucial in mitigating the “crisis of human civilization” posed by artificial intelligence.
Does the completion of the first human brain-computer interface trial signify the technology’s leap into reality? On January 30th, several interviewees told Cover News that while brain-computer interface technology holds vast potential, its core technology still requires significant advancements. Regulatory, ethical, and other issues also necessitate further standardization for its application scenarios.
Has brain-computer interface technology made a qualitative breakthrough?
“In terms of life sciences, we often regard artificial intelligence technology as a tool for exploring the laws of life and aiding in the diagnosis of diseases. Broadly speaking, brain-computer interfaces are a subset of artificial intelligence, focusing primarily on decoding cognition (thought processes). The signal processing and pattern recognition functions developed in traditional AI can be applied to brain-computer interfaces,” said Xu Peng, a National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars recipient, chairperson of the Artificial Intelligence Division of the Sichuan Association for Cognitive Sciences, and a professor at the School of Life Science and Technology at the University of Electronic Science and Technology.
“Generally, a complete brain-computer interface system includes aspects such as signal acquisition, decoding, and command output. Musk’s announcement was mainly focused on the aspect of implantable signal acquisition,” Peng explained, clarifying that such methods of signal acquisition have existed previously, but Musk’s effort correlates to the first successful implantation of Neuralink’s electrodes in a human.
“Although the initial results of the surgery indicate success, there are several looming questions to address: for instance, the compatibility of the electrodes with the human body. That is, the safety and adaptability of the human body to these devices, which requires long-term observation before conclusive results can be drawn,” Xu Peng further elaborated. While this technology has somewhat solved the issue of signal acquisition and enabled observation of stable neural spike activity, the interpretation of these signals and research into brain-computer interaction mechanisms still face significant challenges before practical application can be achieved. “Compared to existing technologies, this implantable technology, although less harmful, still presents unpredictable risks to the human body.”
New advancements in brain-computer interface technology: A positive development for the industry
“We are pleased with Musk’s clinical progress, which is good news for the entire industry,” said Tao Hu, deputy director of the Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and founder and chief scientist of Brainco Technologies.
In February 2023, a 42-year-old male patient successfully underwent a surgery to implant a 256-channel flexible deep-brain electrode using Brainco Technology’s deep electrode + EEG software, capturing single-neuron spike signals.
The three main technological approaches in the invasive brain-computer interface industry include silicon-based rigid electrode systems, vascular electrode systems, and flexible electrode systems. Neuralink’s technology, led by Musk, and Brainco Technology both employ flexible electrodes, which are required to meet the standards of high throughput, low trauma, and long-term in-body compatibility.
As Tao Hu described, the patient had an epilepsy lesion in the right temporal lobe that needed to be removed. Before the removal, miniature flexible deep-brain electrodes were implanted in the lesion area, capturing high-quality local field potential (LFP) and individual neuron potential signals. “On the far right, we recorded over 2000 spikes from neuron number 26, averaging 3-4 spikes per second. This is a significant clinical breakthrough and a crucial research achievement for deep-brain electrodes, verifying their initial effectiveness and safety. We plan to continue exploring this scenario through more scientific and clinical trials.” McKinsey’s research report suggests that the brain-computer interface market could be worth between $70 billion and $200 billion by 2030-2040. The China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) also predicted in its report on the overall vision and key technologies of brain-computer interfaces that the market for neuroprosthetics, neuromodulation, and neurorehabilitation technologies could reach tens of trillions in scale.
Thousands Eager to Volunteer for Elon Musk’s Brain-Computer Interface Project
International media have reported that since 2019, Musk has repeatedly forecasted that his company Neuralink would soon gain FDA approval to begin human clinical trials. However, in early 2022, the company’s application was denied due to concerns over the safety of the brain implant devices.
Prior to the setback, Neuralink had conducted trials on animals such as piglets and monkeys. While they reported successful brainwave connections in piglets and asserted their health post-device removal, the experiments on monkeys resulted in several subjects’ deaths, leading to substantial public condemnation.
Despite controversies, Neuralink’s valuation has soared to $5 billion. The concerns surrounding safety and ethics, as well as skepticism from neuroscientists, haven’t dampened the enthusiasm of volunteers eager to be chipped. On November 7 of last year, Musk tweeted: “Neuralink is developing a visual chip, which should be ready in a few years.” Thousands responded with “super-interested” in volunteering for the company.
The human clinical trials involve a surgical procedure that removes part of the skull to implant the chip into the brain, which can remain for several years. Neuralink has encouraged individuals over 18 with “extensive limb loss” or those suffering from “limb paralysis, paralysis, vision or hearing impairment, or the inability to speak” to apply as volunteers for the brain-computer interface trials.
Documents provided by Neuralink to investors indicate that the company plans to perform 11 chip-implant surgeries on clinical volunteers in 2024, 27 in 2025, and 79 in 2026. Each surgery is estimated to cost $10,500, but the company’s annual revenue is projected to reach about $100 million within the next five years.
Brain-Computer Interfaces Listed Among Top Ten Breakthrough Products
Against the backdrop of a new technological revolution and industrial transformation that is reshaping the global innovation landscape, fields such as brain science, robotics, and artificial intelligence have become the focus of national strategic technology breakthroughs.
Brain-computer interfaces, as a transformative human-machine interaction technology, include interfaces that operate without relying on the peripheral nervous system and muscles, sending commands directly from the brain to external devices or machines. They also include interfaces that bypass the peripheral nervous system and muscles to send electrical, magnetic, acoustic, or photonic neural stimuli directly into the brain from external devices or machines.
On January 29, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology’s official website, seven government departments, including the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science and Technology, released the “Implementation Opinion on Promoting the Innovation Development of Future Industries.” This Opinion sets forth development goals for 2025 and 2027, unveiling six key tasks including strategic layout in six new areas and creating ten iconic products.
The “Implementation Opinion” underscores the need to achieve breakthroughs in next-generation intelligent terminals, enhance information service products, and strengthen future high-end equipment. It lists ten iconic products, including humanoid robots, quantum computers, new displays, brain-computer interfaces, 6G network equipment, ultra-large scale advanced computing centers, third-generation internet, high-end cultural and travel equipment, advanced efficient aviation equipment, and deep-resources exploration and development equipment.
Depression, Epilepsy, Alzheimer’s… How Else Could Brain-Computer Interfaces Help Humanity?
Professor Duan Feng from Nankai University mentioned in an interview with The Paper that brain-computer interfaces have a wide range of prospects. “On the one hand, they can assist patients with movement disabilities such as stroke or ALS by using brain signals from the motor cortex to control peripheral devices, thus improving their quality of life. On the other hand, they have potential in real-time monitoring of emotional signals and promptly delivering stored medication from sensor support to help patients with depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses manage their impulsive emotions.”
Surgical robots. (Image Source: Neuralink official website)
On April 19, 2021, the first patient in China to receive an indigenous closed-loop neural stimulator implant surgery was discharged from the Second Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University Medical College. This marked a significant breakthrough in the clinical translation of brain-computer interface research in the treatment of refractory epilepsy in China.
Brain-computer interfaces also hold substantial promise in treating depression and Alzheimer’s disease. In December 2020, the Ruijin Hospital Brain-Computer Interface and Neuromodulation Center was established and launched a clinical study on the neuromodulation treatment of refractory depression, aiming to enable patients with depression to “switch on happiness in a second.”
Last year, the director of functional neurosurgery and head of the Brain-Computer Interface Neuromodulation Center at Ruijin Hospital, Sun Bomin, stated in an interview that after more than two years of treatment, the depressive symptoms of the 23 enrolled patients improved by an average of over 60%, significantly enhancing their quality of life. The research is set to continue.
Brain-computer interfaces have wide applications in education, smart homes, military, and other fields, including neurofeedback training via wearable devices to enhance attention, brain-controlled smart homes, and assisting soldiers in completing tasks in hazardous environments.
Currently, brain-computer interface technology still faces many challenges: there are about 86 billion neurons in the brain, yet humans can only capture a tiny fraction; implanted materials could trigger brain rejection reactions, or cause brain injury due to movement; and more importantly, our understanding of the working mechanisms of neural systems is still superficial, with even less known about higher brain functions such as emotions and memory.
Not only that, but when brainwaves are perceived and recorded, a person’s thoughts are at risk of being fully exposed, highlighting the increasingly prominent issue of privacy and security.
“In particular, there are significant ethical and other issues regarding the acceptance of patients. It is only when the development of brain-machine interfaces is considered as a whole that, if the interface can indeed provide patients with irreplaceable functions not offered by other technologies, such as motor rehabilitation for spinal cord injury patients, restoration of language functions for patients with speech disorders, and recovery of memory functions for dementia patients, even if there is some trauma involved, people are likely to accept the benefits brought about by this technology to a large extent,” said Xu Peng.