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Neuralink: A Future Treatment for Parkinson’s?

By: Natalie Wilcox



Parkinson’s disease has been a main candidate disease for neural implants and intracranial implantations. Deep brain stimulation was first recorded to be useful in Parkinson’s disease symptomatology in 1993.  It has been shown since then to be helpful in many people to control tremors. Now implanted medical devices have become more mainstream with peripheral nerve stimulators for pain control and brain-controlled prosthetics. Most recently Elon Musk’s Neuralink has jumped into the news for its recent implantation of its first patient. Neuralink has brought up many issues about neural rights to the mainstream. People have many opinions regarding whether the general public should have neural implants. It has led to many dystopian ideas about mind control and cyborgs. However by making this technology more mainstream it may make it easier for people with Parkinson’s to access safe and more affordable implanted technology. 


Musk has already been advertising neuralink as a treatment option for obesity, autism, depression, and schizophrenia. However, neuralink is not the same tech that is used currently for deep brain stimulation. One positive difference is that Neuralink has a focus on biocompatibility which may make it easier to implant and leave long term. Deep brain stimulation has been well-established and used in over 150,000 people. The target for deep brain stimulation is typically the bundle of neurons in the midbrain called the basal ganglia that releases dopamine and is commonly associated with Parkinson’s. The difference between this and neuralink is that neuralink has a much more targeted approach with more than 1,000 electrodes and aims to target specific neurons. This will differentiate from the whole area targeting that we see now with deep brain stimulation. 


Other assistive technologies such as brain-computer interfaces have been helping people that cannot speak to communicate with others. The device, which is also neurally implanted, detects the person’s attempts to speak and translates the signals into automated speech. This technology is quite accurate and allows people with speech impairments resulting from conditions such as ALS to communicate more effectively. 


The new neuralink is currently more similar to these assistive devices as the electrodes are both focused on recording information and administering therapeutics through stimulation. The difference is the location of the electrodes. They will be placed on the surface of the cortical regions which is similar to the therapeutic cortical stimulation. There have been studies that have found that cortical and transcranial magnetic stimulation help alleviate some of the motor symptoms in Parkinson’s disease, however not with the same success as deep brain stimulation. 


Overall, only time will show the effects of accessible technologies like neuralink on Parkinson’s treatment. It will likely not be as targeted as current stimulation treatments but may still be effective with some people with Parkinson’s. One major letdown for neuralink is the battery life and information use. A typical deep brain stimulation battery needs to be charged every 1-2 weeks and has a battery life for up to 25 years. Neuralink needs to be charged daily. Deep brain stimulation also only adds electrical currents, not recording information in the brain. Neuralink can record signaling patterns, which adds more nuance to the ethical issues around the technology. 



References

Caparros-Lefebvre, D., Blond, S., Vermersch, P., Pécheux, N., Guieu, J. D., & Petit, H. (1993). Chronic thalamic stimulation improves tremor and levodopa induced dyskinesias in Parkinson's disease. Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry, 56(3), 268–273. https://doi.org/10.1136/jnnp.56.3.268


Corriveau, M., Lake, W., & Hanna, A. (2019). Nerve Stimulation for Pain. Neurosurgery clinics of North America, 30(2), 257–264. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nec.2018.12.008



Is Neuralink by Elon Musk replacing the deep brain stimulation?. Medipol Health Group. (n.d.). https://medipol.com.tr/en/news/is-neuralink-by-elon-musk-replacing-the-deep-brain-stimulation 


Thompson, B., & Petrić Howe, N. (2023, August 23). Brain-reading implants turn thoughts into speech. Nature News. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-02683-6

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