technology

Is Elon Musk’s Neuralink really the answer to treating depression and disease?

At the end of August 2020, recent developments for Elon Musk’s Neuralink were communicated by live webcast. Musk launched Neuralink in 2016 with the remit of linking the human brain directly with technology. Neuralink, he says, could hold the cure for all kinds of neurological disorders, ranging from multiple sclerosis to scoliosis, and from Parkinson’s to depression.

 

How does Elon Musk’s Neuralink work?

Musk says that Neuralink’s implantable chip is “like a Fitbit in your skull”. He claims that this kind of human cyber-augmentation will lead to a world where human beings will be able to wholly overcome disability, depression and disease. This direct integration of human brains and technology will allow us to essentially transcend our physical form.

Neuralink has implanted this device into the brains of three pigs, which appear to be handling the intrusion well. The technology is made up of very fine threads that transport electrodes and the idea is the chip allows communication with external computers and, at least in theory, secondary links in other parts of the body.

Having invested $100 million of his own capital into the company, Musk is busy recruiting for the expanding company. He also revealed during the announcement that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designated Neuralink as a ‘Breakthrough Device’, which will speed up the regulatory process.

 

What will Neuralink be able to treat?

In the lengthy presentation, Musk spoke about a number of conditions that Neuralink could eventually eradicate. Among these were “important brain and spine problems”, memory loss, brain damage, depression and even blindness.

I’m particularly interested in the claims that Neuralink could give hope for a cure for depression, although so far this has been mentioned in passing only. Around the world there are around 264 million people from different age groups that suffer from depression. It is one of the biggest causes of disease and disability and, of course, can lead to suicide. Since COVID-19 added to our collective mental health problems, I have focused more on this area. And as a newly trained mental health counsellor, even the possibility that there could be a cure for depression is fascinating.

Depression is a disease that can only be treated by drug and talking therapy, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Musk’s forward-thinking, maverick style of tackling major problems facing humanity may well give hope to the millions of people impacted by depression and all of the other conditions Musk mentions in the presentation.

Musk has a reputation for ploughing large amounts of money into barrier-pushing scientific problems, after all. And it seems his overall aim with Neuralink goes even further than helping ill, depressed and disabled people.

 

Neuralink has other commercial potential

Musk has been clear that he sees artificial intelligence (AI) as an existential threat to humanity. He has talked in the media about his concerns over this, where he sees a potential future where AI outpaces human beings. He has even gone so far as to say that AI is a bigger threat to human beings than nuclear war.

Knowing this, we could see Neuralink as part of Musk’s ongoing need to try and stay one step ahead of AI and machines. In the presentation he talks about how it’s vital humanity works out a way to “coexist with advanced AI, achieving some AI symbiosis”. In his opinion, the Neuralink device may achieve this kind of symbiosis.

In the shorter term, there are obvious money-making plans for the device. These could range from streaming music directly int our head or power devices with the power of our thoughts alone. This melding of technology with medical, commercial and future-proofing applications is exactly what makes Musk’s announcement so compelling.

Any potential new technology that could bring us closer to a world without depression or brain disease is extremely seductive. But before we get carried away with an idea of a utopian world where no-one suffers from depression or neurological conditions, let’s review what scientists are saying about Neuralink.

 

What do scientist’s think of Neuralink?

Interestingly, research on interfaces between the brain and machines (BMI) have been part of research projects since the 1970s. So Musk’s concept is not new. Early experiments show patients fitted with external electrodes able to move cursors on-screen. BMIs have also been used by people to move everything from wheelchairs to mechanical arms.

Neuralink itself has so far had a bit of a mixed response from the neuroscience sector. The major breakthrough made by Musk’s company seems to be the number of electrodes it can use – Neuralink can engage ten times more than any other device available. This allows for unprecedented amounts of data to be transmitted. In this context, Neuralink is impressing neuroscientists.

Graeme Moffat is a neuroscience research fellow at the Univerisity of Toronto. He recently told Reuters that the hardware devised by Neuralink is “order of magnitude leaps” beyond any other device by any competitor. He cites the device’s portability, size, wireless capabilities and power consumption as particularly impressive.

Other neuroscientists have praised the rapid development of the technology as a huge achievement. According to Musk, the device implanted into the three demonstration pigs’ brains causes them no issues and that they are “healthy, happy and indistinguishable from a normal pig.”

Another notable Neuralink innovation is the surgical robot they have developed to insert the tiny wires into the brain. The wires are roughly the width of a human hair, and the company’s long-term aim is to hone the procedure until it’s a non-invasive day surgery option.

Scepticism among scientists about some of Musk’s claims

Some scientists are sceptical of the breadth of Musk’s claims for the device. This is particularly the case where he talks about using the BMI to emulate higher-level brain functions, such as recording memories. Some are damning in their view that while Neuralink is impressive technology, it’s buried in hype that represents “a failure of knowledge of biology.”

That aside, Neuralink is still an exciting development with much scope for medical application. And when it comes to the theory of mediating motor functions in patients with neurological impairments, this is well within the grasp of science. It could very well evolve into something that allows patients to have independence.

Musk is hazy when it comes to details and a timeline for this new frontier of neurological treatment. We probably shouldn’t forget that Musk once predicted that there would be one million self-driving vehicles on the road by 2020…I think one day technology will help us to treat neurological issues, including depression, but it may not be something this generation gets to see. But we could be witnessing the early days of a future where humans and technology can work together to control disease, depression and death.

In the meantime, some in the scientific community remain wary of Musk’s claims. A former Neuralink employee and USCD professor is particularly concerned about the “ethics of creating false hope around unknown timelines.” Creating hope in people who suffer from illness and depression is a double-edged sword. While hope can be a positive, it can also quickly turn into a damaging negative for patients desperate for treatment.

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