Elon Musk tries to physically open the brain, but why? Part 1.

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The creation of the neurocomputer interface and significant progress in its development in recent years has become possible thanks to the advanced technologies used to research the brain structure and its activity. Understanding the structure and the nature of the functioning of certain neurons and neural networks has played one of the leading roles in this process.
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History of neuron research

Neurons were revealed in all their glory under the optics of scientists in the late 19th century thanks to the Italian physicist Camillo Golgi and his experiments with staining brain cells. It took another three quarters of a century to understand what kind of structure they were and how they communicated with each other.

Neurons

The key constituents of any nerve cell are:

● the very body of the cell or soma,

● a long process of transmitting signals — axon,

● branching processes used to receive signals — dendrites,

● synapse — the point of the signal transmission between nerve cells.

The membranes of neurons are covered with positively and negatively charged ions on both sides, which freely migrate inside the cell and outwards due to the mechanism of the over-membrane current of the charged particles. In a calm, unexcited state, the cell membrane and the axon have a relatively stable potential difference, at which the inner surface has a negative charge, and the outer surface has a positive charge. Such an equilibrium state is known as the resting potential. Postsynaptic potentials — temporary changes in membrane charges — occur on the neuron body under the influence of substances transferred to it from other neurons — neurotransmitters, from time to time. When the sum of these potentials exceeds the excitation threshold, a certain value of the membrane potential is reached that triggers the action potential. Meanwhile, the sign of the charge of the inner and outer surfaces of the membrane and the axon is reversed. In this case, the neuron conducts an electrical signal, passing it through the axon to bound neurons or an innervated cell.

Imagine you are going to bed before a hard workday, and gradually falling into sleep, you hear the resounding footsteps of an upstairs neighbor. Let’s say you are a thick-skinned person and you don’t take such a trifle to heart. But over time, the knocking of closing cupboards, dropped utensils somewhere in the neighbor’s kitchen and the noise of water running from an open tap are all merging in the night cacophony. These triggers eventually overcome your resistance threshold, and you realize your action potential, getting up and banging on — innervating — the radiator with something heavy. As such, you and your neighbor have a simple neural network of two elements.

Neural networks

There are about 100 billion neurons in the brain. Their network is incredibly extensive — signals that control our body and form consciousness are constantly transmitted through it. The structures of neural networks constantly change as the connections between cells weaken and strengthen. This is how neuroplasticity works — the ability of the brain to adapt and recombine neural ensembles, adapting the carrier behavior to the environment, developing new algorithms, and getting rid of old ones.

Despite documented success in fixing the relationship between individual neurons and the factors of their excitation, as well as the possibility of recognizing the general and specific patterns of activity of various brain regions, it is still not completely clear how to register the relationship between the activity of specific neuronal chains and some clearly expressed thought of a human or their action. A number of laboratories and leading researchers in the field of neurophysiology are currently working hard to solve this fundamental problem. The improved accuracy of recognizing specific patterns associated with thinking will allow the creation of high-performance devices that serve as a link between the human consciousness and the technological environment.

Neuralink on the horizon

Elon Musk, the world-famous innovator and the leader of Tesla and SpaceX, joined in on the work of this above-described problem in summer 2016. The company Neuralink is registered in California, and according to its documents, it is going to engage in medicine research. Leading experts in NCI (neurocomputer interface), biocompatible materials, surgery and engineering have already been recruited.

According to Tim Urban, who has repeatedly promoted and popularized the Musk’s ideas, “The business part of Neuralink is a company that develops neurocomputer interfaces. They want to create ultramodern NCIs — some of them will be “micron-sized devices”. This process will promote the company’s growth and be an excellent base for introducing innovations.”

As for the technologies Neuralink is going to use, we find that everything comes down to the invasive methods of introducing the recording and transmitting components.

At Code Conference 2016, Musk said that a neural interface should be a “digital layer over the cerebral cortex.” The equipment itself will not necessarily be implanted surgically but can rather be implanted through an injection and enter the brain with blood circulation (the so-called “Stentrode” implants). Aside from “stentrodes”, other technologies are also considered: flexible polymer probes, micro-ECoG cylinders, carbon fiber electrodes and “neural dust”. Either way, they are all introduced into the human body and become an inseparable part of it from the moment they are placed inside.

Why surgical intervention in the body is bad

In the light of current developments in neural technologies, it is not entirely clear why Musk has such an irresistible craving for implanting electrodes in the tissue. Invasive methods have a range of drawbacks in a wide variety of aspects:

1. Arguing over an interface that could change the world, the Neuralink team determined an approximate number of “one million simultaneously registered neurons”. Today researchers are equipped with several hundred electrodes capable of measuring the activity of just 500 neurons simultaneously.

2. The potential danger of ischemia of nerve tissue when blood vessels are thrombosed with microdevices is a serious barrier to the market entry and a safety problem. It could lead to the development of heart attacks and brain strokes.

3. Brain operations are expensive and require considerable resources.

4. Biocompatibility is a big problem. The human body can hardly accept foreign objects.

5. Low spatial resolution does not allow the evaluation of brain activity systemically.

6. Consequently, there is a problem of arranging the electrodes for the reliable recording of the activity of the indicated number of neurons. Where will a device that can interact with a million neurons exactly be located, given the current dimensions of microelectrodes?

7. Modern electrodes are mainly optimized for simple electrical recording or simple electric stimulation. If we really need an efficient interface, we need something other than single-function hard electrodes.

8. Over time, the electrodes lose sensitivity and they have to be installed again, elsewhere, in order to continue using them. Existing technologies allow for the successful functioning of implanted electrodes for just one year.

9. Invasive methods bring up a number of ethical discussions associated with interference in human tissues, as well as in consciousness.

Apparently, invasive methods are unsafe and can be used only for solving clinical problems of neural rehabilitation. Of course, this is partly an outdated technology that does not meet the requirements of modern times. It is difficult to say what the cause of Elon’s craving is for entertainment with vivisection — insufficient awareness of developments in this field or, on the contrary, super-awareness, which made him abandon modern approaches in the field of neural interfaces due to reasons known only to a narrow group of professionals. Either way, non-invasive wearable devices look more beneficial from the standpoint of a rational research approach.

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