Mint Primer: Can brain-tech treat paralysis, mental illness?

Neuralink aims to develop a brain-computer interface that can decode and transmit brain impulses for movement.
Neuralink aims to develop a brain-computer interface that can decode and transmit brain impulses for movement.


Neuralink, Elon Musk’s brain-tech startup, is looking to launch clinical trials to put brain implants that would enable patients with deep neural disabilities, such as paralysis, to discharge normal functions such as reading and speech. Is this sci-fi? Apparently not.

What does Neuralink want to achieve?

Neuralink’s brain-computer interface is based on a tiny chip that will be surgically implanted in the brain. This chip will be implanted in an area of the brain that controls neural impulses for movement. Once inserted, this chip will read and wirelessly transmit the brain’s impulses to an app placed in front of the patient, which will produce outputs based on a user’s thoughts. This will be done by decoding the instructions being sent by the brain, and translating the neural impulses into action on the screen. In the first trials, the firm will get people suffering from paralysis to move a cursor on a computer screen.


How do such technologies work?

It’s called a brain computer interface (BCI). Researchers globally, including in India, are experimenting with both invasive and non-invasive BCIs, which include hairnet-like structures that have sensors and electrodes to recognize neural impulses from the brain. Using these, they can stimulate parts of the brain. An early instance is a landmark 2011 clinical research in the US on depression patients. It proved that with correct stimulations, patients can augment what their nervous system is lacking—and show strong signs of improvement compared to traditional cures such as psychotherapy and drugs.


Where does India stand in brain technologies?

The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) is building BCIs to capture impulses of intentions from the brain. This project is at a prototype stage. It is being tested by the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Startup BrainSight AI is working on ‘connectomics’—studying neural links to create a brain map and understand the reasons behind ailments.


What do the Indian technologies offer?

C-DAC’s BCI prototype has a similar model as Neuralink, where sensors try to capture brain impulses in order to understand what a paralysis patient is trying to express in terms of movement. Such BCI implants could be combined with prosthetics to enable disability patients to move, read and even speak. BrainSight’s work, meanwhile, uses sensors and brain-mapping to understand which areas of the brain can be stimulated. This can be used to treat mental ailments such as schizophrenia.


How far are we from mainstream use?

Invasive BCIs will take time. Neuralink received US FDA human trial approval in May this year. Trials also require years of data for safety and viability of mainstream treatment. However, non-invasive BCIs are growing in adoption. Connectomics is at an early-stage—BrainSight is trialling its tech with 20 hospitals across India. NeuroLeap, another startup, is conducting similar trials. Work on brain-mapping is growing too. IIT Madras has opened a centre to create a high-res cellular connectivity map of our brain.

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