The futuristic devices from Black Mirror could soon come true if Elon Musk's Neuralink manages to impress. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO will reveal more details on Friday, August 28 about the brain chip that promises to solve a lot of complex brain-related ailments including hormonal regulation.
Musk has publicly boasted about Neuralink's potential to help treat many untreatable conditions like autism, schizophrenia and dementia among several others. He may announce human trials on Friday as well.
"Neuralink, I think, at first will solve a lot of brain-related diseases. So, could be anything from, like, autism, schizophrenia, memory loss — like, everyone experiences memory loss at certain points in age. Parents can't remember their kids' names and that kind of thing," he said during a podcast Lex Fridman in 2019.
While the technology, in theory, can become a blessing for doctors, can Neuralink be an all-in-one solution for brain and neurological disorders? Let's discuss a few potential scenarios that it could solve.
It is a serious developmental disability that lasts for life. Known as autism spectrum disorder, it impacts the nervous system and impairs the ability to communicate. It could include social interactions, obsessive-compulsive behavior and difficulty in interacting. At present, over 46 million people suffer from autism while in the U.S. alone, the number is around six million.
Since it's not a disorder, there is no treatment for autism and only certain therapies can manage it. But that makes it difficult not only for people who live with it but also for the individual's family. Hence, a "cure" could go a long way.
What actually causes autism is still a mystery but scientists have indicated that certain genetic mutations, environmental factors and fast overgrowth of the brain at an early age could be responsible. How Musk's brain chip proposes to "solve" autism is still unknown and he has not elaborated on that. And if it does what it claims, it could not only be a breakthrough but a Nobel worthy achievement.
Another big claim is about forever mysterious schizophrenia. It is a mental disorder that affects patients' ability to feel, think and behave clearly. People in this have delusions and hallucinations that can range from mild to severe and could be detached from reality. Around 20 million people worldwide are affected by this disorder while in the U.S., around 0.64 percent of the population suffers.
The cause of it also not clearly understood but scientists believe a combination of genetics, environment and brain chemistry play a role. There is again no cure for schizophrenia but psychotherapy using antipsychotic drugs can treat or manage patients with various degrees.
However, in schizophrenia, a structural anomaly prevents neurons from communicating normally. Scientists have proposed rewiring the neurons using artificial ones made of conductive organic polymer to treat the disorder. A study was conducted on a small group of patients using deep-brain stimulation and had limited success.
Neuralink in theory also works the same way. It implants neuron-like threads into brain cells, controlled by a device at the back of the ear. If human trials are successful, it could be revolutionary.
It is a common disorder that affects people of all ages. More than 200,000 cases per year are observed in the U.S. alone. In this neurological disorder, brain activity becomes abnormal that causes seizers, sensations and loss of awareness.
There are various drugs to treat the condition in addition to neuro-stimulant devices that can regulate the neural activity, sending regular signals to reduce erratic ones. Neuralink can be one of those.
Another brain disorder that is caused by nerve cell damage that leads to a drop in dopamine level. It causes tremors, slow movement and loss of balance. It mostly affects the elderly with more than 10 million people worldwide suffering from the condition.
There is no cure for Parkinson's but medication can help manage the tremors. In some cases, surgeries can help. Deep brain stimulation has also been used to help control the symptoms with limited success. Since Neuralink's N1 chip implant promises to regulate hormone levels, it could help in treating the disorder.
It is a progressive brain disorder in which brain cells degenerate (die) that leads to dementia or memory loss. While the actual cause of it is still unknown, scientists believe the abnormal build-up of protein around brain cells could be one cause of the disorder. The protein build-up disrupts the function of neurons and leads to damage.
The disorder is soon becoming a very common health concern among elderly people. Worldwide wide over 10 million cases are reported every year. The degenerative disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S.
There is no cure for the condition but medication can help manage the symptoms and help with dementia. However, neuroprosthetic is one of the solutions proposed. Like Musk, founder of Kernel, Bryan Johnson is also working on a similar project. It's biomedical engineer, Theodore Berger has been studying a neuroprosthetic that can be implanted into the hippocampus of the brain that is responsible for long-term memory and emotion.
It aims to replace damaged neurons and replicate the signaling activity in the brain where the cells are either damaged. Neuralink is also working in a similar direction and has the potential if patients agree to get a brain implant.
Anxiety and Depression
Hormones are partly responsible for anxiety and depression. It is slowly becoming an epidemic with over 264 million people suffering from mild to severe depression worldwide. It's a complex mental disorder with various factors contributing.
Physical abuse, substance abuse, medication, conflicts at home or office genetics, trauma among other factors can cause anxiety and depression. But there are biological factors involved too. Scientists have discovered that a high level of the stress hormone cortisol and low level of serotonin (contributes to happiness) among patients with clinical depression.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychotherapy and antidepressant medication can help. Some selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) have been found to help as well.
However, for patients with severe treatment-resistant depression where no drug or psychotherapy helps, deep brain stimulation has been seen improving the condition. Since Neuralink claims to regulate hormones and "retrain" synapses, brain-mapping interfaces like it can help with depression and addiction through customized treatment plans.
That's not all though. The primary focus of Neuralink will probably be to restimulate neurons to restore sensory and motor function that can help people with paralysis besides enabling them to hear sounds that were previously impossible. That will be a fantastic start, nonetheless, amid fears that it could be hacked.