Pulse 167: Meet Gertrude the Pig and Neuralink

1 September 2020
Giulio Prisco

Neuralink

I guess all readers know that Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is developing some kind of awesome brain interfacing technology. But official updates are not released frequently. More than one year ago, Pulse covered the last (until now) official update.

Now Elon Musk has delivered a new Neuralink update, live streamed and published on YouTube. In his opening remarks, Musk called for engineers to apply for jobs at Neuralink.

The star of the presentation was a pig named Gertrude, outfitted with Neuralink’s brain implant. “Gertrude shuffled around her pen, sniffing the ground and eating, while loud beeps and blips filled the air and a display showed real-time spikes in her brain activity,” summarizes CNN.

“Musk explained that Gertrude had the implant inserted in her head two months before, and that it connected to neurons in her snout. When she touched something with her snout, it sent out neural spikes that were detected by the more than 1,000 electrodes in the implant.”

Neuralink’s tiny interface device is easily implanted into the skull. It's easy to install, remove, and power. And it communicates wirelessly, and can stimulate the brain besides reading it. Musk said that Neuralink received an FDA "breakthrough device" designation in July and is preparing for its first implantation in a human.

There are, of course, important medical applications envisaged for Neuralink technology. Paralyzed patients could use the neural interface to control prosthetic limbs and computers. Conditions such as depression and insomnia, and even deafness and blindness, could be eventually cured.

But it’s easy to see that, besides medical applications, Neuralink’s brain interfacing technology could enable science-fictional applications like technological telepathy, or blending human and artificial intelligence (AI). “On a species level, it’s important to figure out how we coexist with advanced AI, achieving some AI symbiosis,” said Musk, “That might be the most important thing that a device like this achieves.”

Musk’s announcement has been widely and enthusiastically covered by the press. Of course there are exceptions, such as an MIT Technology Review commentary that is, unfortunately, a hatchet job of pompous, pedantic, pointless, and hateful criticism for its own sake. This is typical of what I have come to expect from a certain type of “intellectual.”

Let me, instead, add mine to the many voices that enthusiastically praise this and other accomplishments of Elon Musk and his teams. Of course the road is long, but I think there are good things ahead.

Synthetic Proteins Repair Neural Connections

Researchers at German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Keio University, and Aichi Medical University have developed a neurologically active synthetic protein. And they tested it in laboratory studies.

One study is published in Science. It shows that the experimental compound ameliorated symptoms of certain neurological injuries and diseases in mice. And, on the microscopic level, it was able to establish and repair connections between neurons.

This proof-of-principle study suggests that biologics could be of clinical use in the long term. Biologics act on neuronal connectivity.

Brain Imaging Analysis Boosts Brain Treatments

Duke University scientists have developed a new method of brain imaging analysis. It offers the potential greatly to improve the effectiveness of noninvasive brain stimulation treatment. This may help in cases of Alzheimer's, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and other conditions.

The new method is described in a research paper published in The Journal of Neuroscience. It analyzed the whole brain network rather than a single region of the brain. And it identified brain areas that exert the most control on network function.

The scientists are persuaded that brain stimulation can promote healthy brain activity patterns. And it may eventually enhance memory function and treat a range of cognitive disorders.

Re-Engineered Protein May Reverse Nerve Damage

Researchers at University of Toronto Engineering and University of Michigan have redesigned and enhanced a natural enzyme. The enhanced protein shows promise in promoting the regrowth of nerve tissue following injury.

The work is described in a paper published in Science Advances. Researchers altered the biochemical structure of the enzyme in order to create a more stable version. The new version is more stable than the original that occurs in nature.

Researchers believe it could lead to new treatments for reversing nerve damage caused by traumatic injury or stroke.

RNA Technology Rebuilds Broken Heart Tissues

Scientists at Scripps Research Institute have shown that it may be possible to one day heal damaged heart tissue with medication. The medication would target an essential biomolecule that surges in failing heart muscle.

A research paper is published in Nature Chemistry. It describes a compound able to restart cellular production of a factor called VEGF-A, short for vascular endothelial growth factor A. VEGF-A acts as a signal to stem cells. It causes them to rebuild blood vessels and muscle in damaged heart tissue, and improve blood flow.

The Scripps scientists used experimental RNA technology developed in collaboration with AstraZeneca.

Tweaking a Protein Boosts a Cancer Vaccine

Researchers at Thomas Jefferson University have found that tweaking a protein in adenoviruses induces a more robust immune reaction. The protein has been used to deliver vaccines against gastric, pancreatic, esophageal and colon cancers in animal models.

A study with laboratory animal studies is published in Journal for ImmunoTherapy of Cancer. Based on the study, researchers speculate that 90% of patients in planned human tests should have a clinically meaningful immune response to the new version of the vaccine. Only about 50% of patients respond to the first version.

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