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These four brain computers are ahead of Neuralink and Elon Musk

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These four brain computers are ahead of Neuralink and Elon Musk

Elon Musk’s company Nueralink has surgically inserted the first brain implant. Getty Images

Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface (BCI) company, Neuralink, has inserted an implant into its first human patient.

Musk says his goal is for all of us to be able to control our phones and computers with our minds.

There is great competition from other BCI manufacturers who have been producing implants for decades.

This is a machine translation of an article from our US colleagues at Business Insider. It was automatically translated and checked by a real editor.

Elon Musk announced that his brain interface company, Neuralink, implanted its first human brain chip last week. The product is called “Telepathy”. “It allows you to control your phone or your computer, almost any device, just by thinking about it,” Musk said on X, the social media platform he owns that was formerly known as Twitter.

Given the breathless talk about it being a “first” in human brain implantation, one might assume that Musk is way ahead of the game.

But surgically implanted brain-computer interface devices, or BCIs, have been implanted into people’s heads for about twenty years, since a groundbreaking operation took place in Massachusetts in 2004. Since then, several companies have emerged with increasingly elegant and useful BCIs that are well ahead of Neuralink.

Here you can see how Musk’s toughest competitors are currently doing.

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1. Blackrock Neurotech

Blackrock’s implantable electrode, called the Utah Array, is smaller than a thumbnail. Courtesy of Blackrock Neurotech

Currently, most people who have had a BCI implanted in their head have a Blackrock device. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain, but it is estimated that there are up to 50 people worldwide who have had a BCI implanted in their skull. About 40 of them are Blackrock products.

Blackrock Neurotech (not to be confused with the completely independent investment firm Blackrock) has been active in this area for some time. The company, headquartered in Utah, was founded in 2008.

Right now, all implanted BCIs are a way for people with severe paralysis to regain their independence by using their minds to control devices and access the Internet.

Some people with Blackrock implants can drive a car with their BCI. Others have regained their sense of touch. But executives in the field say the applications for BCIs could look very different in the future. Blackrock co-founder Florian Solzbacher said the revolutionary technology could one day be used by first responders, the military or other able-bodied people who want to gain a competitive advantage or added convenience.

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Marcus Gerhardt, CEO of Blackrock, told Business Insider that while there is still a long way to go, “the opportunity to break through that barrier may come sooner than people out there think.”

2. BrainGate

Pat Bennett was diagnosed with ALS in 2012. The neurodegenerative disease caused major muscles in her face to become flabby, but a BCI device is helping her communicate again. Steve Fisch/Stanford Medicine

BrainGate pioneered the first implanted BCI for human use in 2004, building on research that began at Brown University in the late 1990s. The academic consortium’s current device is typically the size of a small tablet and is manufactured by Blackrock.

Each patient’s implant consists of two or more devices, each with up to 100 electrodes thinner than a hair. It is implanted on the surface of the brain above the cerebral cortex in areas responsible for limb movements or language.

The first-ever BrainGate device – the first ever implanted BCI – was inserted into the head of Matthew Nagle, a man who was paralyzed from the neck down after a knife attack. Nagle became an excellent Pong video player with the help of his BCI, but died of sepsis in 2007. The same first-generation BrainGate BCI was implanted into three other patients between 2004 and 2009.

“You don’t necessarily read about them as much and they’re not in the public spotlight as much, but that’s because they’re focused on fundamental and deep research in this area,” Gerhardt said of the BrainGate consortium.

BrainGate is currently conducting a clinical trial of its second-generation BCI, a device for quadriplegics like Nagle called BrainGate2. The Study, which has been running since 2009, is expected to be completed in 2038. So far, 15 people have received a BrainGate2 device.

“Every single one of the study participants makes an extraordinary contribution to research. They often participate in the studies for years and provide us with feedback on how these types of implantable BCIs can help other people with paralysis,” explained Leigh Hochberg, leader of the BrainGate clinical trial, in an email to Business Insider.

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3. Synchronous

Synchron CEO and founder Dr. Thomas Oxley with the company’s Stentrode BCI. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Brooklyn-based Synchron has developed one of the smallest, minimally invasive BCIs and has successfully implanted it in several people around the world, including patients in Australia (2020) and the US (2022). Many other BCI devices are placed on the gray matter of the brain. Synchron’s stentrode instead sits in the blood vessels in a person’s head.

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The BCI is delivered into the head via a tiny metal stent. Similar to how patients with heart disease often use stents to open clogged arteries near their hearts, Synchron implants a small framework of electrodes into key blood vessels at the top of the skull near our motor cortex to translate thoughts into actions. A pacemaker-like unit in the chest then wirelessly transmits these signals from the brain to a computer or device.

In 2022, Musk – then reportedly frustrated by Neuralink’s slow pace of development – ​​approached Synchron’s CEO, neurosurgeon Thomas Oxley, about investing in the company, according to “Reuters“ reported. And Musk’s co-founder, former Neuralink president Max Hodak, is a synchronous investor. Although Hodak once went to “Bloomberg“ said that he did not want his investment in a Neuralink competitor to be seen as a “blow” against his former company.

“I’m sure they’ll soon be operating on humans too,” he said.

4. Academic institutions around the globe

NeuroRestore / Onward

Several other universities are also at the forefront of the BCI industry with unique research operations. Some are visible plugs that sit on people’s heads and need to be wired to a computer to read brain signals. At least one man uses a backpack to transmit signals from two BCI electrode grids in his head to another implant in his spine that helps him walk.

Canadian Ann Johnson, unable to speak for nearly 20 years after a stroke, regained her ability to speak with an implanted BCI from the University of California, according to “CTV“ reported. Dutchman Gert-Jan Oksam is the man who can walk again with a backpack after injuring his spinal cord in a cycling accident, thanks to researchers at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

“I can’t go to the supermarket yet, but I can stand much better now,” Oksam told reporters at a news conference in May. “It’s still hard to leave,” he said. “But I’m very happy that I achieved what I achieved.”

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What Neuralink still has to prove

Neuralink via YouTube

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What Neuralink has achieved so far is just a first step towards a functional BCI. The California-based company inserted its “cosmetically invisible” device into a person’s brain in late January. Musk has told reporters that he expects this first patient to be able to control a computer or phone using just his thoughts in about a week.

“Let Elon be Elon. It can help us imagine the future and challenge us to step outside our frameworks and limiting constructs and think about what might one day be possible,” said Gerhardt, the CEO of Blackrock. “At the end of the day, the devil will be in the details and we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Basically, Neuralink’s technology is no different from Blackrock’s. However, instead of looking like a tiny comb, the Neuralink device has over 1,000 fine, hair-like electrodes distributed in 64 threads, likely presenting a greater surgical challenge.

In the online Published details of the Neuralink study state that the company has developed a surgical robot “to reliably and efficiently insert the threads of the N1 implant into the corresponding brain region.” It’s unclear how much of Neuralink’s surgical procedure is performed by a human.

Will Musk also be successful in the field of neurosurgery?

The next challenge is to prove that this device can help someone regain their independence. For example, can this BCI help a person with ALS (or locked-in syndrome) shop online?

“The first users will be those who have lost the use of their limbs,” Musk said on X. “Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or an auctioneer. That is the goal.”

This goal is not unattainable, but it will take several years and require a certain amount of training. In the next few days or weeks we should know a little more about how well the first Neuralink patient is recovering.

“How we think, how we feel, how we experience – this is much more than just a technical problem,” neuroscientist Anil Seth recently told the “BBC“. “The kind of strategy that Musk has found so successful in building electric cars or rockets does not, in my opinion, easily translate to this area.”

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