“North Brain No. 2” achieves breakthrough: Monkeys use their minds to obtain strawberries

Implant a thin film holding soft filaments into the monkey’s skull, and the monkey can control the robotic arm to grab strawberries without using any physical or mental means. At the 2024 Zhongguancun Forum, which opened on April 25th, the major achievement of the “North Brain No.2” brain computer interface independently developed by the Beijing Institute of Brain Science and Brain like Research in collaboration with Beijing Xinzhida Neurotechnology Co., Ltd. officially appeared, filling the gap in high-performance invasive brain computer interface technology in China.

According to the R&D team, this is the first time internationally that macaques have achieved clever brain control interception of two-dimensional motion cursors. As early as 2021, Neuralink, a brain computer interface company founded by Elon Musk, had already shown videos of monkeys manipulating joysticks through their minds.


The cutting-edge technology of human-machine hybrid intelligence

Brain computer interface technology, as the “information highway” for communication and exchange between the brain and external devices, is a cutting-edge technology for the new generation of human-computer interaction and human-computer hybrid intelligence. “Simply put, the brain computer interface captures subtle changes in the brain’s electrical signals, decodes brain intentions, controls’ thoughts’ and ‘actions’, and allows machines to be controlled from space even without manual intervention,” explained Luo Minmin, director of the Beijing Institute of Brain Science and Neuromorphic Research

He further explained that the core determining the performance of brain computer interfaces lies in the clarity of EEG signal capture and the accuracy of conversion. “The former relies on electrodes, while the latter relies on algorithms.” Luo Minmin said, “Brain computer interfaces compete for safety, stability, and effectiveness. This is a systematic project, and key technologies need further breakthroughs.”

“Beinao-2” is equipped with high-throughput flexible microfilament electrodes, which act as a “sensor”. By implanting it into the brain, it can read EEG signals, and its performance determines the quantity and quality of brain signals captured.

Li Yuan, Business Development Director of Beijing Xinzhida Neurotechnology Co., Ltd., introduced that the effective channel number and long-term stability indicators of the “Beinao No.2” flexible electrode have reached the international leading level. Unlike hard electrodes, flexible microfilament electrodes implanted in the brain of macaques can still accurately collect EEG signals one year later.

In addition, Beinao-2 is equipped with a thousand channel high-speed neural electrical signal acquisition device and a generative neural decoding algorithm based on feedforward control strategy. The algorithm is like a translator, capable of accurately deciphering brain intentions and establishing precise mappings between cortical neural activity and motor parameters.

It is reported that the “Beinao-2” system has been stably implanted in the monkey’s skull for nearly a year, achieving the world’s first brain controlled interception of two-dimensional moving targets by macaques through mind control, solving the international cutting-edge problem of long-term stable recording and real-time decoding of large-scale single cell signals. The key indicators of electrode performance are internationally leading.

Li Yuan told a reporter from First Financial News that currently, “Beinao-2” has conducted about 10 monkey experiments to test different electrodes and perform different motion decoding tasks.

Luo Minmin told First Financial reporters that preparations are currently being made for human trials, including patient screening. “Movement disorders are the main direction of attack,” he said.

Brain computer interface (BCI) is a technological competition hub among developed countries in the fields of neuroscience and neuromorphic research. It requires the integration of complex systems across multiple disciplines, with long upstream and downstream links in the industry. The research and development process involves multiple links such as electrodes, chips, data, algorithms, analysis software, and biocompatible materials.

Facing the international cutting-edge development trend of brain computer interfaces, multiple research teams in China are currently researching brain computer interface devices with different technological paths, mainly including invasive, semi invasive, and non-invasive technologies.

In this context, the Beijing Institute of Brain Science and Brain like Research has taken the lead in formulating the “Intelligent Brain Computer System Enhancement Plan”. In 2023, Beijing Xinzhida Neurotechnology Co., Ltd. was established, focusing on the research and development of brain computer interfaces and clinical transformation applications. It is aimed at the forefront of international research and development of brain computer interface core components, developing neural decoding algorithms, multi-dimensional system integration, and developing products for clinical application scenarios for commercial transformation.

The previous generation product of Beinao 2, Beinao 1, focuses on semi invasive collection of cortical electrical signals and has now entered clinical research.

Luo Minmin emphasized to a reporter from First Financial that there is still a long way to go in the development of brain computer interfaces in China. Although some progress has been made, we still need to face the gap with truly world-class standards.

Facing the gap between domestic and international markets

In recent years, China has developed rapidly in the field of brain computer interfaces and achieved continuous results. On January 29th of this year, brain computer interfaces were included in the “Implementation Opinions on Promoting Future Industrial Innovation and Development” jointly issued by seven departments including the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the Ministry of Science and Technology. This document focuses on future industries and clearly proposes the need to strengthen the research and development of quantum computers, brain computer interfaces, new displays, and 6G network devices.

With the support of policies, a group of innovative brain computer interface enterprises targeting industrialization have emerged in China. For example, Brain Tiger Technology, Borui Kang, Strong Brain Technology, etc.

Naohu Technology stated that it completed three implantation surgeries in clinical practice in the first half of last year, and achieved functions such as single neuron Spike signal recording, Chinese language decoding and synthesis, as well as real-time localization of patient language areas during surgery. This can guide surgeons to accurately remove brain lesions while preserving important brain functions of patients.

On January 31st of this year, the official website of Tsinghua University announced that the team from Tsinghua University and Xuanwu Hospital has successfully conducted the first clinical trial of wireless minimally invasive brain computer interface. It is reported that a high paraplegic patient with 14 years of quadriplegia was discharged 10 days after implantation. After three months of home rehabilitation training, the patient can use EEG activity to drive pneumatic gloves and achieve brain control functions such as autonomous water drinking. The grasping accuracy exceeds 90%.

The reporter from First Financial News learned that Borui Kang is the brain computer interface industrialization company behind the Tsinghua team. In December 2022, the company received billions of dollars in Series C financing.

In the 2022 financing news of Borui Kang, Professor Hong Bo from Tsinghua Medical College once commented on the company as follows: “The performance of Borui Kang’s EEG devices is currently at the same level as that of Japan’s Optoelectronics and the United States’ Natus. EEG devices are to the brain computer interface industry, just like the iPhone is to the mobile phone industry; developers can improve electrode materials and iterate software algorithms around solid hardware and operating systems.”

However, currently international brain computer interface manufacturers represented by Neuralink are still leading in technology and have taken the lead in entering human clinical trials. On January 28th of this year, Neuralink announced the completion of the first human patient brain chip implantation, with good patient recovery and preliminary results showing promising detection of neuron spikes.

In February this year, Musk stated that the patient had already achieved control of the computer mouse through his mind. Peng Lei, CEO of Brain Tiger Technology, predicted to First Financial reporters at the time that Neuralink is expected to showcase three main scenarios: brain computer interface control for mobile phones and computers, control for robotic arms, and language output.

Regarding the future development direction of brain computer interfaces, Peng Lei stated that the evolution trend of brain computer interface chips in the future will inevitably be higher channel numbers, lower single channel power consumption, and stronger front-end signal processing compression capabilities; In addition, the chips of implantable products need to comply with the laws and regulations of medical devices, including temperature rise, power consumption, and other requirements.

Pu Muming, academician of the CAS Member and academic director of the Brain Intelligence Excellence Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in a recent interview with the media that the current application of brain computer interface is mainly in the medical field. Most of the clinical trials of brain computer interface conducted by global scientists are aimed at functional recovery of patients with high paraplegia. He believes that the goal of future brain computer interface development is to iteratively develop a universal minimally invasive brain computer interface platform for the rehabilitation of more brain diseases such as epilepsy and cognitive impairment.

In addition to policy support, the development of brain computer interfaces also requires significant capital support. According to Neuralink’s filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission in November last year, the company has currently raised at least $323 million in funds, which has led to a valuation of over $5 billion for the highly anticipated brain computer interface company.

In China, industrial investment funds with state-owned assets are currently dominant in promoting the development of brain computer interface technology. Taking Xinzhida as an example, the company is controlled by Beijing Beinao Venture Capital Fund, a subsidiary of Zhongguancun Development Group.

In terms of private capital, Tianqiao Brain Science Research Institute (TCCI) has supported and funded the research and development of brain computer interface decoding Chinese language and flexible brain computer interface technology by the Institute of Microsystems, Chinese Academy of Sciences and the neurosurgery team of Huashan Hospital. According to data disclosed by TCCI, as of 2023, TCCI has invested over RMB 1.5 billion to support domestic and international neuroscience research, covering the complete chain from basic research to technological application transformation.

TCCI co-founder Chen Tianqiao believes that Chinese researchers can surpass Neuralink to some extent. He once stated in an interview with First Financial News that artificial intelligence technology has played a huge role in the cutting-edge field of brain computer interfaces in recent years, and he hopes that more artificial intelligence talents can join the field of brain science.