How Novel Is Neuralink?

12:12 minutes

Last month, the company Neuralink, co-founded by Elon Musk, released a video update of their technology. The company makes brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs—implants in the brain that detect signals and send them to a computer. In the video, a macaque named Pager sits in front of a screen, while a narrator explains Pager had two Neuralinks implanted in both sides of his brain six weeks before.

Pager is playing Pong. Not with a joystick or controller, but with his brain, according to the narrator. As with any Elon Musk venture, this Neuralink video got a lot of buzz. But brain-computer interfaces themselves are not a new concept. Where does this fit into the realm of neurotechnology research?

Joining Ira to talk about this Neuralink update is Dr. Paul Nuyujukian, director of Stanford University’s Brain Interfacing Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. Ira also turns to Nathan Copeland, a neurotechnology consultant and brain-computer interface participant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Six years ago, Copeland had four BCI devices implanted, and is one of just a handful of people to have BCI implants in his brain.

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Segment Guests

Paul Nuyujukian

Paul Nuyujukian is Director of the Brain Interfacing Laboratory at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Nathan Copeland

Nathan Copeland is a neurotechnology consultant and brain-computer interface participant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Last month, the company Neuralink co-founded by Elon Musk released a video update of its technology. The company makes brain computer interfaces. These are implants in the head that detect signals and send them to a computer. In the video, a macaque named Pager sits in front of a screen while a narrator explains that Pager has two neural links, implanted six weeks before.

SPEAKER: If you look carefully, you can see that the fur on his head hasn’t quite fully grown back yet. He’s learned to interact with a computer for a tasty banana smoothie delivered through a straw.

IRA FLATOW: While he sucks down his smoothie, Pager is playing Pong, not with his hand on a joystick or controller but with his brain.

SPEAKER: To control his paddle on the right side of the screen, Pager simply thinks about moving his hand up or down. We’ve removed the joystick altogether.

IRA FLATOW: As with any Elon Musk venture, this Neuralink video got a lot of buzz. But where does it fit in the realm of brain-computer interface, BCI research? Joining me to think this through is Dr. Paul Nuyujukian, director of Stanford University’s brain interfacing laboratory in Palo Alto, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

PAUL NUYUJUKIAN: Thank you very much, Ira. It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Paul, when you look at the video, seeing a monkey controlling a video game just by thinking about moving the paddles, it really does look amazing. But what do you, as someone in this field, take away from this video?

PAUL NUYUJUKIAN: A really good question, Ira, and part of me I think will always feel that sense of amazement every time I see it because it is amazing, right? To think about something, whether it’s a cursor or robotic arm being controlled by thoughts from the brain directly. What we’re seeing, though, is something that isn’t novel, necessarily, to the field of neural engineering and neural prosthetics.

It’s something that the academic sphere has been working on for decades at this point. And what we’re seeing is now Neuralink stepping up and showing off what they can do, what they’ve developed, what their hardware looks like, and a demonstration, a proof of concept, in a non-human primate, which is the last step in a monkey before you go into and get approved for a clinical trial in people.

IRA FLATOW: What is the hardware innovation, then, that you see here?

PAUL NUYUJUKIAN: So the video they put out represents a significant advancement in, at least in my opinion, of the hardware that exists in the field. Their device is about an order of magnitude higher in channel count. It records from about 1,000 channels whereas the current state of the research field for human implantation [INAUDIBLE] reports from about 100.

On top of that, it’s fully implanted. It is battery powered. It is wireless and rechargeable. And it works over long periods of time, at least over the span of weeks, as far as they’ve been able to share with us, in monkeys, which all of these represent novel, significant advancements for the field of neural prosthetics, which is all very exciting new developments to see.

IRA FLATOW: As you say, BCIs are not a new thing. How long has research into this existed?

PAUL NUYUJUKIAN: Well, it really depends on how you define the field because, if you reach back to just the amount of time that these devices have implanted in people, then you’re maybe talking about the 15, 20 years. If you reach a little further back and say, well, how long has the animal work in this space been going back? Well, then it’s another decade or two before that.

And if you reach even further back and say, well, how long has neuroscientists been recording from the brain of animals and/or people? And that reaches back even further, dating back to almost 100 years or so. And so really what this is is a slow evolution and development of scientific progress on top of scientific progress, building and building and building to see the compelling results that you see now. All of this would not be possible without decades and decades of consistent scientific advancement.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve reached out to Neuralink to talk about it, but they keep things very close to the chest. Do you know what Neuralink’s goals for this product are?

PAUL NUYUJUKIAN: Elon was one of the founders and [INAUDIBLE] the company has said that he has a couple of main goals for the project. His short-term goal, which is one that I think is shared among many in the scientific community– it was a tweet that he put out on April 16– said that it’s to address brain and spinal problems. So to sort of rephrase that, it’s to address people who have various forms of paralysis and restore some form of function through either the computer interface or sort of interface to something that’s controlled.

IRA FLATOW: I want to introduce our second guest. He’s one of just a few people in the world who have an implanted brain-computer interface. Nathan Copeland, neurotechnology consultant and brain-computer interface participant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, welcome to Science Friday, Nathan.

NATHAN COPELAND: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to getting your BCI implanted?

NATHAN COPELAND: Yeah, well, in 2004, I was 18, and I was in a car accident that left me a C5 quadriplegic. So while I was in the rehab hospital there, they asked if I wanted to be put on a research registry. I said, yeah, because it was many years ago now, and you never know what’s going to come up in the future.

So yeah, I just said, yeah. And it’s probably been about eight years ago, I got a call. They asked if I wanted to join a BCI study involving implants in the motor cortex to control robotic arm or computer interface, cursors, some keyboards, and that kind of stuff. It also involved implants in the sensory cortex that they could use to stimulate my brain directly to elicit sensations that felt like they were coming from my actual hand. And I kind of felt like, since I qualified to do it and I knew the criteria was so specific, I couldn’t really say no. It just helped that I thought it was really cool.

IRA FLATOW: Mhmm, so just to be clear, you don’t have a Neuralink because they’re not approved for use in people yet. So what do your implants look like? How big are they? Where are they? Can give us an idea?

NATHAN COPELAND: So I have four Utah arrays implanted. They’re really small. They’re like the size of one of your finger nails, so about 100 electrodes. I have two in sensory cortex and two in motor cortex. And the way they’re wired, there’s actually 256 channels that they can record from.

IRA FLATOW: There’s a video of you from a few years back, fist pumping President Obama with a mechanical arm that you’re controlling with your brain. It’s really so cool. Aside from fist pumping the president, what kind of stuff can you do with your BCI?

NATHAN COPELAND: Yeah, getting to meet President Obama and that fist pump was, still to this day, probably one of the coolest things I’ve been able to do through this study, aside from I am actually the first human in the world to have implants in sensory cortex. Through all these implants, I’m able to control a robotic arm, interact with computers using like a cursor or a keyboard.

So with using the computer, what I like to do is draw. I’ve drawn a cat. I’ve actually made it into an NFT and dreaming big on maybe selling that one day. And then the other thing I really like to do is play games. I have not played pong. But I’d be willing to practice up if there was ever going to be a interspecies pong match over Twitch or something one day.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] That is– that’s cool. And Nathan, I know you’ve been keeping up with Neuralink and what they promise. What was your impression of this latest demonstration? What do you see? Because it has so many more channels that you said, 1,000 or more, what are the possibilities of having that kind of power available?

NATHAN COPELAND: Yeah, so that’s really the main thing of interest that I pick up on while watching the video because I know monkeys have played pong or other 2D and 3D tasks, and they’ve controlled robotic limbs because that’s how we got to the point that I’m at today. But the games I play are pretty basic. I can control like a couple dimensions of translation and maybe do a button or two. Now, if I had 1,000 electrodes and the computer was receiving signals from 10 times as many neurons, I could probably play a lot more games with a lot more complexity. And if I could do that wirelessly and to any device I wanted, that would be really cool.

IRA FLATOW: Paul, I want to ask you if there are a lot of critics out there, naysayers who say, well, this is an Elon-Musk company. He must be doing his bravado. I’m not sure I believe what I see on that screen. Paul, how do you answer that?

PAUL NUYUJUKIAN: It’s pretty easy. I know a bunch of the people that work at Neuralink. They’re my friends and colleagues, and they do good work. I knew what they were doing when they were in the University setting. And I have no doubt that they’re maintaining that same integrity in the Neuralink company itself. Seeing what Neuralink has developed, it really is a step forward in the hardware. And it is very exciting to see these developments unfold.

IRA FLATOW: How close are they, do you think, to getting a clinical trial approval for this device?

PAUL NUYUJUKIAN: That’s a really good question. It’s hard to know for certain. But what they would need to show to get a clinical trial approval, it’s called an IDE, an investigative device exemption from the FDA, is that this device has been tested and evaluated in multiple monkeys, is safe, is effective, and is reliable. And what they’re showing us here isn’t necessarily that. They’re just showing us a single example. But I would not be surprised if they’re very close. It would not surprise me if they are a year or two away from getting that approval to do their first clinical trials in people.

IRA FLATOW: Nathan, would you consider getting a Neuralink in the future?

NATHAN COPELAND: So as part of the study I’m currently in, the FDA has approved my usage up to 10 years from the start of my implant, and I had just hit my six-year implantiversary on May 4. I absolutely would get one, but I’m going to use mine until they’re broke. Even if I was offered a Neuralink, I don’t think it does the research any good to jump ship, so to say, because, as it is right now, no one really knows how long these arrays that I have in really last.

They have some ideas based on monkey stuff. But I might take care of my head a bit more delicately than a monkey. And maybe my stuff will last beyond 10 years.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we wish you the best of luck and hope for your success, Nathan. Nathan Copeland, neurotechnology consultant and BCI participant living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Dr. Paul Nuyujukian, director of Stanford University’s Brain Interfacing Laboratory in Palo Alto, California. Thank you both for taking time to be with us today.

NATHAN COPELAND: Thank you for having me.

PAUL NUYUJUKIAN: It’s a pleasure.

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