A team of scientists, some of whom have worked for Elon Musk, outlined a way to rapidly implant electrical wiring into the brains of rats. The process, described in an unpublished academic paper, is an important step towards a potential system to plug human brains directly into computers.
The paper’s five authors have been employed by or loosely associated with Neuralink, a small and secretive brain computing startup founded by Musk, according to people familiar with their work and public information. Some of the research predates the formation of the company, and there is no mention of the scientists’ affiliation with
the billionaire in the paper, which was posted last month to an online repository for academics and hasn’t been previously reported.
The authors dub their system a “sewing machine” for the brain. It involves scientists in a laboratory removing a piece of a rat’s skull and inserting a single needle that sends flexible electrodes into brain tissue. The researchers are soliciting feedback on their work before submitting it for peer review and publication in a scientific journal. The authors and a spokesman for Neuralink either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests.
Still years away from possible human testing, the paper shows a path forward to monitoring—and potentially stimulating—brain activity with minimal cranial harm. That could enable a company like Neuralink to one day build a device with artificial intelligence that people could access with their thoughts.
Still, such a business may find it difficult to locate customers willing to undergo surgery to remove a chunk of their skulls. To start, the science community sees promise in a version of the technology that could treat patients with Parkinson’s disease, memory loss or other ailments of the brain.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency provided financial support for the research. The agency, DARPA, is known for its role in forming the internet and GPS. For the rat-brain project, DARPA awarded $2.1 million to the University of California at San Francisco, where the bulk of the work was done. “Although more research is needed to refine the overall interface system and better integrate its components, these developments may ultimately open the possibility of bundling next-generation robotics, AI software and electronics to
create alternatives to present-day neurosurgical techniques,” Justin Sanchez, the director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, said.
Scientists have been working for years on ways to place electrodes in the brain while causing as little damage as possible.