With Neuralink, will it really be possible to cure tinnitus?

With Neuralink, will it really be possible to cure tinnitus?

With Neuralink

Neuralink, the US company whose goal is to connect the brain and computer via a chip, founded (along with others) by Elon Musk, is making a comeback after allegations of violating the rules on animal testing. This time the news is quite different, and it is Musk himself who announced it, answering a question on Twitter about the treatment of tinnitus, a disorder that manifests itself with the perception of constant rustling, buzzing or ringing even in the absence of external noises, and for which there is currently no definitive therapy. According to Musk's statements, Neuralink's chip could reach the solution of the problem "within less than five years".

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Very interesting, but what is true, or plausible, behind an announcement of this nature?

The birth of Neuralink Let's take a step back and go back to 2017, when Musk, founding Neuralink, stated that within four or five years he would be able to develop a partial interface between the brain and the computer. At the time, the company's goal was, at first, to enhance the skills of the human brain, and then move on to develop interfaces capable of relieving the symptoms of some chronic brain diseases (epilepsy, Parkinson's, etc. .). The device developed by the company is a coin-sized chip, called Link, which is implanted flush with the skull by a surgical robot, and connected via a thousand wires (about the size of a quarter of a human hair) to certain groups of neurons; communication with an external computer, on the other hand, takes place via bluetooth.

Ultra-thin electrodes and robot surgeons In 2019, Musk and Neuralink technicians presented the first prototypes tested on laboratory animals (rats and a monkey) with the declared goal of moving on to humans the following year. The electrodes shown by the scientists immediately appeared very interesting, above all for their thinness (4-6 micrometers, equivalent, in fact, to a quarter of the diameter of a hair), and for their flexibility, which would have avoided the use stiff needles in the brain that could have caused damage in the long run (since, as the experts explained, "the brain in the skull moves, while the electrodes do not"). This flexibility, however, makes the insertion of the electrodes into the brain more complicated; for this reason the company also announced the creation of "a neurosurgical robot capable of inserting six wires (equal to 192 electrodes) per minute": a sophisticated device capable of implanting the wires avoiding damaging the blood vessels, thus reducing the response inflammation of the brain.

2019: it's up to Gertrude The next step saw the arrival on the scene of Gertrude, a pig who, in a live stream of August 2019, demonstrated the level of development of the neuroelectronic interface by Neuralink. Basically, in the live broadcast the pig was seen operating its main and most developed sensory organ, the snout, while the images shown on a screen and the sounds broadcast by an audio system revealed its brain activity in real time, giving a suggestion of how much its intensity varied according to which point it smelled and what it did.

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A sort of "fitbit in the skull" , as Musk himself said, that is, a system that records a series of information associated with brain activity which, in turn, can provide some general indications on what is happening inside the brain.

Pong! In 2021, the company released another video that showed a nine-year-old macaque, Pager, playing a game of Pong using, instead of a joystick or keyboard, simply his brain, in which, of course, a Link had been implanted. .

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Before the implant, Pager was taught to play Pong using a joystick, rewarding him with a sip of milkshake to the banana every time he made the correct move; at the same time, their brain activity was recorded, in order to identify which groups of neurons controlled the movements of the joystick and Pong's racket and to subsequently associate them with the activity monitored by the Link.

A cure for tinnitus? Thus we arrive at the present. In which, as we have seen, Musk stated that by 2027 Neuralink will be able to cure tinnitus. Net of Musk's usual media enthusiasm, this could actually be plausible: "Neural implants - explains David Tuffley, professor of associated ethics and cybersecurity at Griffith University in The Conversation - help people who suffered from hearing disorders since early 1960s, when the first cochlear implant was inserted. Since then, medicine has made great progress in this regard. The neuroscientist community, on the whole, is quite optimistic about Neuralink's potential for treating tinnitus; it could also be useful for treating obsessive-compulsive disorders, healing brain trauma and treating conditions such as autism or degenerative disorders of the nervous system ". On the other hand, it is currently too early to move beyond cautious optimism, as Neuralink (nor Musk) has not provided further details on how the device might actually treat tinnitus. Certainly it will take time: “The FDA has included Neuralink among the class III medical devices, the riskiest ones. Before clinical trials on humans can begin, the company will have to pass all the regulatory body's clinical checks - continues Tuffley. "To be approved, the company will need to provide comprehensive data from clinical trials on non-human subjects (such as the Pager monkey) to justify starting the next phase. It must also be said that some monkeys died during the Neuralink tests, and that there have been several criticisms of animal welfare. Understanding how long this process will take is far from simple: it could take years, and everything could have a cost that is accessible only to the richest people. Therefore, the wisest thing is not to have false hopes for an economic system that will cure tinnitus in the short term ".

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