Elon Musk Claims Neuralink Could 'Cure' Tinnitus


The human brain is widely considered to be the most complex biological structure ever created. While science does not yet have a complete understanding of the brain, researchers in the growing discipline of neuroscience have made strides.

Neuroscientists have made significant progress in understanding the intricate functioning of the brain's 85 billion neurons and the 100 trillion connections that connect them. (To put this astronomical number into perspective, there are upwards of 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy.)

Enter Neuralink, a Silicon Valley start-up sponsored by Elon Musk that has built a brain-computer interface as a neuroprosthetic device. Musk predicts that in five years, this chip would cure tinnitus, a neurological disorder that produces ringing in the ears. But is this possible?

What is Neuralink?

A precise surgical robot implants the coin-sized Neuralink gadget, known as a Link, flush with the skull. A thousand microscopic strands from the Link are connected to specific neurons by the robot. Each thread is around the size of a human hair in diameter. The device uses Bluetooth to connect to an external computer for continuous communication.

In the future, Neuralink prostheses could help people with a variety of neurological illnesses in which the brain and the nerves that supply the body are disconnected or malfunctioning. People with paraplegia, quadriplegia, Parkinson's disease, and epilepsy are among those affected.

Since its establishment in 2016, Neuralink has been enlisting the help of world-class neuroscientists from academia and the broader research community to build technology to treat these diseases.

Neuralink's monkey can play Pong with his mind

A spectacular proof-of-concept video was released by the company in April 2021. It showed Pager, a nine-year-old macaque monkey, effectively playing Pong with his mind using an implanted Neuralink device connected to a computer running the game.

Pager the monkey played the computer game Pong with his mind. 

Pager learned to play Pong with a joystick. He'd get a drink of banana smoothie every time he made the right move.

The Neuralink implant captured the patterns of electrical activity in his brain as he performed. This determined which neurons were in charge of particular movements.

Pager was able to play the game and win using only his mind when the joystick was disconnected.

Human trials to further develop the Neuralink prototype are planned to begin by the end of 2022, pending FDA permission.

Musk's tinnitus claims

According to Elon Musk, the Neuralink device would be able to cure tinnitus by 2027.

Tinnitus is a neurological disorder that causes a ringing or buzzing in the ears that isn't caused by anything external.

Tinnitus is a common condition that occurs when the vestibulocochlear nerve, which connects the inner ear to the brain, is destroyed as a result of persistent loud noise, injury, or blood supply deficits.

Tinnitus has eluded researchers for decades. Masking the sound or learning to ignore it are now the most common treatments.

The Neuralink prosthesis is now connected to the cerebral cortex, the brain's surface layer. This is where the device can help the brain recover from harm to its ability to process motor sensory input and output.

Are Musk's claims credible?

These claims may appear lofty. However, the science behind it is uncontroversial.

Neural implants have been helping people since the early 1960s when the first cochlear implant was placed in a person with impaired hearing. In the 60 years since then, there has been a lot of improvement.

Neuroscientists believe the device has the potential to alleviate tinnitus. Deep brain stimulation may also be effective in treating OCD, healing brain damage, and treating illnesses like autism or degenerative nervous system diseases.

As Paul Nuyujukian, director of Stanford University's Brain Interfacing Laboratory, points out:
"We are on the cusp of a complete paradigm shift. This type of technology has the potential to transform our treatments. Not just for stroke, paralysis, and motor degenerative disease, but also for pretty much every other type of brain disease."

What do we need to be cautious of?

The FDA has classified Neuralink as a class III medical device, which is the most dangerous. Before beginning human trials, Neuralink must pass the FDA's stringent regulatory requirements.

To be accepted, the company must offer comprehensive clinical study data from non-human test subjects (such as Pager the monkey) in order to conservatively justify advancing to the next phase. Some monkeys perished during Neuralink's studies, raising animal welfare worries among opponents.

The human testing approval process could take some time.

The FDA will be on the lookout for unanticipated negative effects of the gadget, such as depression. How practicable it is to remove or repair a device if it malfunctions, as well as how to limit the danger of brain injury or infection, will be of interest.

Following FDA approval, Neuralink will recruit human volunteers for the next round of testing.

Nobody knows how long it will take for the device to become commercially available or how much it will cost. It could take years, and the cost will be prohibitive to all but the wealthy.
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