30yr old first user of Neuralink Brain chip says has let him “reconnect with the world”

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30yr old first user of Neuralink Brain chip says has let him “reconnect with the world”

Thirty-year-old Noland Arbaugh says the Neuralink chip has let him “reconnect with the world”

Noland Arbaugh has a computer chip embedded in his skull and an electrode array in his brain. But Arbaugh, the first user of the Neuralink brain-computer interface, or BCI, says he wouldn’t know the hardware was there if he didn’t remember going through with the surgery. “If I had lost my memory, and I woke up, and you told me there was something implanted in my brain, then I probably wouldn’t believe you,” says the 30-year-old Arizona resident, who has been paralyzed below the middle of his neck since a 2016 swimming accident. “I have no sensation of it—no way of telling it’s there unless someone goes and physically pushes on it.”

The Neuralink chip may be physically unobtrusive, but Arbaugh says it’s had a big impact on his life, allowing him to “reconnect with the world.” He underwent robotic surgery in January to receive the N1 Implant, also called “the Link,” in Neuralink’s first approved human trial.

BCIs have existed for decades. But because billionaire technologist Elon Musk owns Neuralink, the company has received outsize attention. It’s brought renewed public interest to a technology that could significantly improve the life of those living with quadriplegia, such as Arbaugh, as well as people with other disabilities or neurodegenerative diseases.

BCIs record electrical activity in the brain and translate those data into output actions, such as opening and closing a robotic hand or clicking a computer mouse. They vary in their design, level of invasiveness and the resolution of the information they capture. Some detect neurons’ electrical activity with entirely external electroencephalogram (EEG) arrays placed over a subject’s head. Others use electrodes placed on the brain’s surface to track neural activity. Then there are intracortical devices, which use electrodes implanted directly into brain tissue, to get as close as possible to the targeted neurons. Neuralink’s implant falls into this category.

Capturing neural activity can be like trying to record chitchat between two people in a packed stadium, says Douglas Weber, a mechanical engineer and neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University. To hear anything more than the crowd’s roar, you need to get up close with the person speaking. “The farther away from the speaker you are, the more mixed and muddled the conversations become,” he explains. Neuralink threads electrodes into the brain’s motion-controlling motor cortex, positioning “sensors right up next to the individual neurons that are conversing.”

Neuralink is not the first to do this. A device called the Utah Array—a tiny, rectangular grid of silicon spikes—is the standard electrode system for intracortical BCIs. It was developed by a University of Utah bioengineering professor, Richard Normann, in the 1990s; in 2004 Matthew Nagle was the first person to use a Utah Array BCI to control a cursor with his thoughts. Neuralink’s design, drawing on prior microwire research, is also not the first to replace the rigid Utah array with a network of thin, flexible threads that have electrodes along their length.

What Neuralink has done, however, is condense multiple advances into a single implantable, intracortical, wireless device. “They’ve kind of taken the best of everything that I’ve seen and put it all together,” says Jennifer Collinger, a biomedical engineer and associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

DATA INTO ACTION

The Link’s circular electronic hub connects to 64 superfine threads that contain a total of 1,024 electrodes. That’s about 10 times as many electrodes as a Utah Array (though multiple Utah Arrays have been implanted into a single person’s brain at once). The Link transmits compressed neural data from the brain via Bluetooth, and an algorithm tuned to the user’s unique neural patterns translates those data into action.

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