The human brain is arguably the most complex biological structure that has ever existed – at least up to this point and in the universe as we know it. To help us decipher and understand this immense complexity, researchers in the field of neuroscience are pioneering their way.
Recently, they took a significant step forward when they successfully reconstructed a functional map containing 85 billion neurons and more than 100 trillion connections between them. To give you an idea of the numbers, the entire Milky Way galaxy we live in has 400 billion stars.
And not only in theory, the field of neuroscience is also moving very fast on the road to application. Typically, the Neuralink project of billionaire Elon Musk – a startup company founded in 2016 in Silicon Valley with the mission of implanting a chip in the human brain to establish a brain-computer interface (Brain-Computer Interface). .
Neuralink claims the applications of their technology are limitless, from reading human minds, converting thoughts into text, helping paralyzed people control computers or even robotic arms.
Elon Musk also opens up a prospect when chips implanted in the brain will one day allow humans to evolve to the point of symbiosis with artificial intelligence.
The applications of Neuralink are so deep and wide that the billionaire does not hesitate to declare, the chip his company is developing “sure” will cure tinnitus. And while you might think it’s funny to compare something as trivial as tinnitus to the perspective of symbiosis with artificial intelligence, you’d be wrong.
Tinnitus is a chronic disease that affects billions of people around the world and there is no cure for it. It all comes down to where we don’t fully understand the complexity of the brain: Where the buzzing, high-pitched sounds are created by the brain itself as an illusion, even though our ears don’t hear it at all. see them?
Let’s talk about Neuralink’s chip first
It was a device named “Link”, which was about the size of a dime. There are a total of 3,072 electrodes connected with micro-conductors, each about 5-6 nm thin, which is 1/20 the diameter of a human hair.
In the Link transplant into the human brain, electrode fibers will be “stitched” straight to the surface of the brain by an advanced surgical robot that Neuralink itself is developing. The robotic arm can be so precise that it cancels out even subtle vibrations, transmitted from a patient’s heart beating to their brain, or from breathing in their chest.
In his statements, Elon Musk said Neuralink’s surgical robotic arm will make it simple and easy to implant chips in the brain, just like when you go for eye surgery to correct myopia.
Now, once the patient has Link implanted in the brain, the chip will do the job of receiving electrical signals emitted from the cerebral cortex, then transfer these signal packets to an external computer using the connection. Bluetooth.
The computer decodes the signals in the patient’s brain. Depending on the purpose and location where Link is implanted, these signals will be used to control the mouse pointer, type text or control a robotic arm.
Conversely, because Link is a brain-computer interface, it can also receive signals that are transmitted from the outside. These signals could theoretically stimulate the brain in specific patterns.
Right now, technologies similar to Link are being used to treat epilepsy, where chips can send out electrical signals to calm a patient’s seizures. It is also being used for patients with Parkinson’s disease, dystonia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression.
In the future, back-and-forth communication between the brain, Link and the computer could realize Elon Musk’s vision, which is to allow the brain and the computer to perform neural processing that supports each other. In other words, we can symbiosis with computers, with artificial intelligence running on them.
But that is still a matter of the future, for now, let’s see what Link has done?
Neuralink was founded in 2016 and by 2018 they had successfully built a prototype of the Link chip and a surgical robotic arm, and used them to attach the chip to the brain of a mouse.
The test became the first proof that Elon Musk’s idea could work.
In 2020, they went one step further when they successfully attached the Link chip to the brain of a pig named Gertrude. An online demonstration during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that the Link chip is capable of transmitting and receiving signals with a computer.
Specifically, it was able to correctly locate Gertrude’s limbs while the pig was walking on a treadmill. The chip also records other complex neural activities, such as when a pig searches for food.
In 2021, Neuralink successfully attached the Link chip to the monkey’s brain and allowed the monkey to play a version of a video game using only its thoughts. A monkey named Pager will have to win a video game like catching the ball (Pong) to receive a banana smoothie as a reward.
While you see the monkey holding the joystick to move the pointer over the figure, the stick is actually disconnected from the game. That means Pager is just using thought to play that video game.
This thought is transferred from the brain to the chip, and then from the chip implanted in its head to the computer. After that, the monkey’s thoughts were processed by the receiving game.
With this result, Elon Musk confidently confirmed once again that Neuralink’s chip was able to help monkeys control computers with just thoughts. This is also the premise for Neuralink to apply to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for testing the chip on humans this year, 2022.
Pager monkey uses his mind to play games
Elon Musk’s claim and Link’s ability to cure tinnitus
It was brought up by the billionaire in a recent post on Twitter, when a person with the account JamesWLaw asked “Is there any chance? [mà Neuralink] Can tinnitus be cured?“.
Elon Musk replied: “Definitely. Probably less than 5 years from now, when current versions of Neuralink are already semi-expandable neural read/write devices with 1,000 electrodes and tinnitus requires less than 1,000 electrodes.” great number of.
The number of electrodes on the next generation of Neuralink will be increased exponentially“. The official Neuralink Twitter account also confirmed, it could be between 10,000 -100,000 electrodes.
But why would a device like the Link chip cure tinnitus? In fact, we have to go back to find out why 1 in 10 people in the world hear hallucinatory buzzing in their head.
Harvard Medical School defines tinnitus as any sound (buzzing, whistling, humming, chirping, roaring, or shrill) that occurs in the head without an external input source. Most people experience short-term tinnitus, for example when exposed to very loud noise, during a concert, or at an airport.
But for about 15% of the world’s population, their tinnitus is chronic. That is, the illusion of sound appears in their heads at any time, especially at night when the space becomes quiet.
The cause of tinnitus is determined to be from damage to the atrial hair cells in the cochlea. We know sound waves travel through the ear canal to the middle and inner ear, where there are vibrating hairs, which help convert sound waves into electrical signals, which are then transmitted to the auditory cortex through the auditory nerve. .
When atrial hair cells are damaged – when exposed to loud noises, for example – circuits in the brain don’t receive the signals they expect. This stimulates the neurons to increase their sensitivity, leading to hallucinations of sound.
This is like when you tune in to an FM channel in your car, but because the signal is so weak, you have to increase the volume or sensitivity. As a result, the FM also picked up more noise and hiss.
Although tinnitus is not a dangerous or life-threatening condition, it causes people with partial hearing loss, discomfort, reduced work productivity, poor quality of sleep, thereby affect overall physical and mental health.
Currently, scientists do not have a cure for tinnitus. People with hearing loss due to tinnitus were asked to wear a hearing aid, while those who found it uncomfortable were suggested to listen to white noise to mask the effects of the hallucinogenic sounds.
So can Neuralink completely cure tinnitus as Elon Musk claims? If we compare the principle of the Link device and the cause of tinnitus, the answer is probably yes. They can overcome each other.
Currently, the Link chip is being connected to the cerebral cortex, or outer surface layer of the brain. This is the part of the brain that processes input from the senses, including hearing.
So, theoretically, Neuralink could pick up the noise signal in the auditory cortex and emit an inverse signal to cancel it. This will ultimately help eliminate the phantom ringing in the ears that the patient can hear, returning them to a calm and clear space.
However, the question now is whether you are willing to implant a chip in your head just to eliminate the buzzing in your head? Remember that the Link chip is classified by the FDA as a Class III medical device, meaning the highest-risk implant procedure.
Some of the surgical complications you may face include: infection, pain, swelling, headache, difficulty concentrating, even stroke.
Like other brain implants, Link can also have a chance of failure in your head, such as corroding its electrode wires. At that point, you’ll need a new surgery to clean up the inside of your skull. Not to mention when the device runs out of battery, it also needs a re-surgery to replace the battery with a new one.
In some tests with animals implanted with the Link chip, many monkeys suffered from chronic infections and even died. Therefore, no matter how potentially large the device is, it must be carefully evaluated by the FDA before being implanted in a human patient.
Once approved by the FDA, Neuralink recruited volunteers willing to take the risks and participate in their trial. It is expected that the first Link chips will be implanted in patients this year. So, let’s wait for this test, to see if Elon Musk continues to take another important step forward with Neuralink?