Strengthen our brain, perhaps allowing it to make unimaginable calculations for a human being, or perform other actions that 'amplify' brain functions in several directions.
This will be the new frontier of Elon Musk, a South African entrepreneur regarded as one of the brightest minds of the 21st century, whose stated purpose "focuses on the ideal of improving the world and humanity"? Now the US Food and Drugs Administration has authorized the experimentation of brain implants Neuralink, a start-up by Musk , which pursues the goal of "improving the connections between the brain and computers". But what does it mean and what are the risks involved in grafting a microchip into our brain?
Neuralink, the FDA approves the test of the chip on the human brain of Elon Musk
What are neural interfaces
Let's clarify one point: neural interfaces, or Brain-computer interfaces (BCI), are direct means of communication between the nervous system and an external device. Tools that could have different applications: ranging from regenerative medicine to prosthetics, up to robotics and entertainment.
The aim of the American entrepreneur, therefore, would be to reach a new frontier of symbiosis with artificial intelligence. So far, a few prototypes have been implanted in animals, the most famous being a macaque called pagers and a pig named Gertrude. And, thanks to this technology, several monkeys are now able to 'play' video games or 'type' words on a screen, simply by following the movement of the cursor on the screen with their eyes.
The clinical trial
Placing electrodes in the brain to receive and transmit stimuli is not new. The professor is keen to clarify it Alberto Mazzonihead of the Computational Neuroengineering Laboratory at the BioRobotics Institute of the Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa.
He explains: "The clinical trial is underway and the results are more than satisfactory. Just look at the study released these days by the research group of the Polytechnic University of Lausanne, a digital bridge that allowed a man paralyzed for 11 years to return to walk because this technology allows his brain to talk directly to the areas of the spinal cord that control his movements".
The chip that 'talks' to the brain
"We are therefore talking about a type of electrode that reads cortical activity and can decode it - continues Mazzoni -. The first cortical implant dates back to 2006. At the time, for tetraplegic people, it was possible to control the movement of a mouse. perfecting the subject, which however certainly did not invent Musk: we can define his project as an 'incremental novelty': it arrives in an already mature sector and improves, but does not revolutionize, the existing one".
The Sant'Anna Institute is also moving in this direction. It is always Mazzoni who speaks. "The European Union projects in which we have been involved, among the various purposes, had that of improving the quality of the materials of the implant (because one must be sure that, once the operation is completed, the patient can keep it for a long time). And we are working on it, also with the use of silk, a material that lends itself to the purpose. So the fact of the biocompatibility of the electrodes is important".
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How to use the implants
But what would be the desirable use for these new technologies? "If we refer to the motor aspect, there is a whole supply chain that is dealing with it - underlines the scientist -. The point, if anything, is how they can work under another, more delicate, profile: neurological, cognitive or of personality. I am thinking of the stimulation implants with which many Parkinson's traits are improved. And recently a debate has opened up on the fact that we have gone further: in the USA, by stimulating the brain, it would have been possible to cure a person of the obsessive-compulsive syndrome compulsive".
Only delicate nuances or a minefield? "When you intervene on the cognitive aspect, you have to be careful of side effects, because it is possible to alter circuits in which decisions are made - warns Mazzoni -. Therefore, I say, let's go slowly in developing these technologies". "I am skeptical about Mask's project - he concludes -. I wonder who owns the data read by the Neuralink system. And if they can be used. Because the brain contains more sensitive data than any other source. And, using them, thanks to the "Artificial intelligence may also be able to predict a person's behavior. So, before implanting chips, let's make clear laws".
Systems inside and outside the brain
He is of the same opinion Egidio D'Angelo, professor of Physiology at the University of Pavia, director of the Digital neuroscience Center of the Mondino institute in Pavia, as well as deputy director of the Human project. "The chips in the brain are the basis of the Brain-computer interface - he explains -. They are very advanced electrodes that can receive signals from the brain and transmit stimuli. We have been working on them since the late 1990s. And currently there are very efficient ones" .
Then there are systems external to the control brain: we are talking about highly developed technology, which can read and transmit better both on the interface hardware and in the computer. "They are used for Deep brain stimulation - explains D'Angelo -. I'm thinking of Parkinson's, a very interesting medical use that many Italian centers make of them, including Pavia. Another use is the one made by the team of Swiss experts who has given a paralyzed patient the ability to walk after 11 years.In parallel, the technology of external virtual models of the brain is being developed, to make predictions about the abnormality of brain circuits, for example for epilepsy. predicts where the surgeon should touch".
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What does Musk want to do? Problems
For D'Angelo now there is one question to answer before delving into any comments about using the chips on the human brain: "What does Musk want to do?". "It's not clear at all - he says -. He's developing some application, but we don't know which one. Surely, when he talks about the Neuralink implant, he's referring to an experiment dating back to 15 years ago by the neuroscientist Miguel Nicoleiswho in the United States, where he worked, was involved in the project in which the Brain-machine interfaces were able to control external devices".
But there are some problems. "They are of two types - specifies D'Angelo -. One is biomedical: can these anomalies cause damage to the brain? Which obviously needs to be clarified. The second problem is ethical. We wonder what could happen if these technologies worked by generating faculties mental augmented. And it is certainly a very delicate issue".
The expert concludes: "The key message that I would like to send is to pay attention to positive things and to be cautious about potentially negative ones. So, given that it would be interesting to know what Musk's real intention is, I would say to remain open-minded in any case. guarantee comes from the FDA itself: if it has given the OK to the Neuralink project, considering that it has efficient ethics committees internally, you can trust it".