Metropolitan Digital

The Conversation

  • Written by Robert Gaunt, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Pittsburgh

Elon Musk grabbed a lot[1] of attention[2] with his July 16 announcement[3] that his company Neuralink plans to implant electrodes into the brains of people with paralysis by next year. Their first goal is to create assistive technology to help people who can’t move or are unable to communicate.

If you haven’t been paying attention, brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) that allow people to control robotic arms with their thoughts might sound like science fiction. But science and engineering efforts have already turned it into reality.

In a[4] few research[5] labs around[6] the world[7], scientists and physicians have been implanting devices into the brains of people who have lost the ability to control their arms or hands for over a decade. In our[8] own[9] research group[10] at the University of Pittsburgh[11], we’ve enabled people with paralyzed arms and hands to control robotic arms[12] that allow them to grasp and move objects[13] with relative ease. They can even experience touch-like sensations[14] from their own hand when the robot grasps objects.

At its core, a BMI is pretty straightforward. In your brain, microscopic cells called neurons are sending signals back and forth to each other all the time. Everything you think, do and feel as you interact with the world around you is the result of the activity of these 80 billion or so neurons.

If you implant a tiny wire very close to one of these neurons, you can record the electrical activity it generates and send it to a computer. Record enough of these signals from the right area of the brain and it becomes possible to control computers, robots or anything else you might want, simply by thinking about moving. But doing this comes with tremendous technical challenges, especially if you want to record from hundreds or thousands of neurons.

What Neuralink is bringing to the table

Elon Musk founded Neuralink in 2017, aiming to address these challenges and raise the bar[15] for implanted neural interfaces.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Neuralink’s system[16] is the breadth and depth of their approach. Building a BMI is inherently interdisciplinary, requiring expertise in electrode design and microfabrication, implantable materials, surgical methods, electronics, packaging, neuroscience, algorithms, medicine, regulatory issues and more. Neuralink has created a team that spans most, if not all, of these areas[17].

Brain-machine interfaces are getting better and better – and Neuralink's new brain implant pushes the pace The size of the threads, attached to a fingertip for scale. Neuralink[18]

With all of this expertise, Neuralink is undoubtedly moving the field forward, and improving their technology rapidly. Individually, many of the components of their system represent significant progress along predictable paths. For example, their electrodes, that they call threads[19], are very small and flexible; many researchers[20] have tried to harness those properties to minimize the chance the brain’s immune response would reject the electrodes after insertion. Neuralink has also developed high-performance miniature electronics – another focus area for labs working on BMIs.

Often overlooked in academic settings, however, is how an entire system would be efficiently implanted in a brain.

Neuralink’s BMI requires brain surgery. This is because implanted electrodes that are in intimate contact with neurons will always outperform non-invasive electrodes where neurons are far away from the electrodes sitting outside the skull. So, a critical question becomes how to minimize the surgical challenges around getting the device into a brain.

Brain-machine interfaces are getting better and better – and Neuralink's new brain implant pushes the pace Neuralink’s ‘sewing machine’ for embedding the threads in a brain. Neuralink[21]

Maybe the most impressive aspect of Neuralink’s announcement was that they created a 3,000-electrode neural interface where electrodes could be implanted at a rate of between 30 and 200 per minute. Each thread of electrodes is implanted by a sophisticated surgical robot that essentially acts like a sewing machine[22]. This all happens while specifically avoiding blood vessels that blanket the surface of the brain. The robotics and imaging that enable this feat, with tight integration to the entire device, is striking.

Neuralink has thought through the challenge of developing a clinically viable BMI from beginning to end in a way that few groups have done, though they acknowledge that many challenges remain as they work towards getting this technology into human patients in the clinic.

Figuring out what more electrodes gets you

The quest for implantable devices with thousands of electrodes is not only the domain of private companies. DARPA[23], the NIH BRAIN Initiative[24] and international consortiums[25] are working on neurotechnologies for recording and stimulating in the brain with goals of tens of thousands of electrodes. But what might scientists do with the information from 1,000, 3,000 or maybe even 100,000 neurons?

At some level, devices with more electrodes might not actually be necessary to have a meaningful impact in people’s lives. Effective control of computers for access[26] and communication[27], of robotic[28] limbs[29] to grasp and move objects as well as of paralyzed[30] muscles[31] is already happening – in people. And it has been for a number of years.

Since the 1990s, the Utah Array[32], which has just 100 electrodes and is manufactured by Blackrock Microsystems[33], has been a critical device in neuroscience and clinical research. This electrode array is FDA-cleared for temporary neural recording. Several research groups, including our own, have implanted Utah Arrays in people that lasted multiple years[34].

Currently, the biggest constraints are related to connectors, electronics and system-level engineering, not the implanted electrode itself — although increasing the electrodes’ lifespan to more than five years would represent a significant advance. As those technical capabilities improve, it might turn out that the ability to accurately control computers and robots is limited more by scientists’ understanding of what the neurons are saying – that is, the neural code – than by the number of electrodes on the device.

Brain-machine interfaces are getting better and better – and Neuralink's new brain implant pushes the pace Brain-machine interfaces can transform brain signals into commands for robotic arms. UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences, CC BY-NC-ND[35]

Even the most capable implanted system, and maybe the most capable devices researchers can reasonably imagine, might fall short of the goal of actually augmenting skilled human performance. Nevertheless, Neuralink’s goal of creating better BMIs has the potential to improve the lives of people who can’t move or are unable to communicate. Right now, Musk’s vision of using BMIs to meld physical brains and intelligence with artificial ones[36] is no more than a dream.

So, what does the future look like for Neuralink and other groups creating implantable BMIs? Devices with more electrodes that last longer and are connected to smaller and more powerful wireless electronics are essential. Better devices themselves, however, are insufficient. Continued public and private investment in companies and academic research labs, as well as innovative ways for these groups to work together to share technologies and data, will be necessary to truly advance scientists’ understanding of the brain and deliver on the promise of BMIs to improve people’s lives.

While researchers need to keep the future societal implications of advanced neurotechnologies in mind – there’s an essential role for ethicists[37] and regulation[38] – BMIs could be truly transformative as they help more people overcome limitations caused by injury or disease in the brain and body.

[ Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter[39]. ]


  1. ^ a lot (
  2. ^ of attention (
  3. ^ July 16 announcement (
  4. ^ In a (
  5. ^ few research (
  6. ^ labs around (
  7. ^ the world (
  8. ^ our (
  9. ^ own (
  10. ^ research group (
  11. ^ University of Pittsburgh (
  12. ^ control robotic arms (
  13. ^ grasp and move objects (
  14. ^ touch-like sensations (
  15. ^ raise the bar (
  16. ^ Neuralink’s system (
  17. ^ of these areas (
  18. ^ Neuralink (
  19. ^ that they call threads (
  20. ^ many researchers (
  21. ^ Neuralink (
  22. ^ sewing machine (
  23. ^ DARPA (
  24. ^ NIH BRAIN Initiative (
  25. ^ international consortiums (
  26. ^ access (
  27. ^ communication (
  28. ^ robotic (
  29. ^ limbs (
  30. ^ paralyzed (
  31. ^ muscles (
  32. ^ Utah Array (
  33. ^ Blackrock Microsystems (
  34. ^ multiple years (
  35. ^ CC BY-NC-ND (
  36. ^ meld physical brains and intelligence with artificial ones (
  37. ^ role for ethicists (
  38. ^ regulation (
  39. ^ Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter (

Authors: Robert Gaunt, Assistant Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Pittsburgh

Read more

Metropolitan republishes selected articles from The Conversation USA with permission

Visit The Conversation to see more

Entertainment News

Phish’s 2018 Fall Tour to Conclude with Four Performances at MGM Grand Garden Arena

LAS VEGAS (May 15, 2018) – Phish, the American rock band known worldwide for its dedicated fan base, recently announced a 14-date Fall tour which will conclude in Las Vegas with four performances at...

Blane Ferguson - avatar Blane Ferguson

Dave Damiani and The No Vacancy Orchestra are “Bending The Standard”

Tina Sinatra, Dave Damiani & Landau Murphy Jr. celebrate 100 years of Frank Sinatra in Los Angeles There have been stories about independent filmmakers, but how about the independent big band...

Tom Estey - avatar Tom Estey

Billboard Chart-Topping Saxophonist VANDELL ANDREW Returns With New Single

From the vantage point of 30, his age and the name of his infectious, sensually grooving new full length album, Vandell continues to be fueled by the impressive roar of accolades and achievements th...

Metropolitan Digital - avatar Metropolitan Digital

Metropolitan Business News

Office Cleaner Takes Ownership of the Neglected Dishwasher

In an office that a dishwasher is being used communally, it is pretty difficult to set rules on how a certain appliance needs to be taken cared of. A dishwasher is a responsibility of no one until you...

News Company - avatar News Company

Amazing tips to become a successful trader

Everyone is working very hard to secure their financial freedom. Most of the people find it hard to support their family even after having a 9-5 day job. For this very reason, people often look for ...

News Company - avatar News Company

Best Practice For Young Professionals Working Through HR Internships

The industry of human relations is vitally important to the health and prosperity of a business.   Whether they are operating in textile manufacturing, accounting, sports, IT development or hospit...

News Company - avatar News Company

4 Easy Steps To Gaining SEO Momentum For Your Business

SEO (search engine optimisation) does not have to be a tiresome and overbearing exercise that diverts attention away from the core functions of a business.   SEO Shark affirms this as a smart and ...

News Company - avatar News Company

How to Manage An SEO Project On Limited Funds

SEO operators don’t need thousands upon thousands of dollars to become successful.   What SEO practitioners needs more than ever is the skills and diligence to identify problems that are acting a...

News Company - avatar News Company

An Introduction To Coworking For Australian Business Owners

Advancing technology is bringing with it great advantages in communications and networking, and to survive in business you need to keep up. With the rate at which everything changes these days, that...

News Company - avatar News Company


New Baggage Regulations to Help Aussie Parents Travel with Infants

Travelling around the globe has never been easy, especially when infants tag along for the trip. One of the main issues that parents often have to deal with is the need to bring extra item...

News Company - avatar News Company

Maya Beach Opens to Tourists

Despite recent reports that Southern Thailand's famous Maya Beach will close for three months this year, in fact no decision to this effect has been made by Thai authorities. Phi Phi Nati...

Maevadi Rosenfeldt - avatar Maevadi Rosenfeldt


SKYN®, Australia’s best-selling condom*, today launches its very first SKYN® Places of Intimacy Guide.   Curated in partnership with GQ Magazine and Conde Nast, the Guide features 30 lux...

SKYN - avatar SKYN