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All the Actually Important Stuff Neuralink Just Announced

All the Actually Important Stuff Neuralink Just Announced

The most widely tested brain implant is the Utah array—a hard silicon square with 100 tiny protruding needles. Each about a millimeter long, the needles have electrodes on their tips that capture brain signals. But these rigid devices can cause scarring to nearby tissue, which over time can interfere with their recording ability. By contrast, one of Neuralink’s innovations are the flexible threads attached to its implant that are dotted with more than 1,000 electrodes. 

Neuralink is also trying to improve on existing BCIs that require clunky setups and invasive brain surgery; instead, the company’s sewing machine-like robot could install electrodes by punching them into the brain through a small hole in the skull. Plus, the device transmits brain signals wirelessly, unlike most current BCIs, which rely on external cables that connect to a computer from the top of a person’s head.

Neuralink has been testing its prototype in pigs and monkeys, and in April 2021, the company posted a video of a macaque playing the video game Pong hands-free thanks to two brain implants the company installed in her brain. (The feat had already been achieved by a person with a BCI 15 years before.) 

In a company update in 2020, pigs implanted with the coin-sized Neuralink device trotted onto a stage so Musk could demonstrate the safety of the implant, as well as its ability to record neural activity from the pigs’ brains. (He described the device as “a Fitbit for your skull with tiny wires.”) One pig had an implant in its brain at the time of the demonstration, and another previously had one but had it removed beforehand. Meanwhile, the brain signals from the pig were broadcast on a screen. 

The company’s current implant, which is the size of a quarter, contains 1,000 channels capable of recording and stimulating nearby neurons. But on Wednesday, Neuralink staff said they were working on a next generation chip with 4,098 channels in a chip of the same size.

Although Neuralink may be the most recognizable, a handful of other companies are also working on brain implants and grappling with common problems such as safety, longevity, and what they can get the implant to do.

Two ex-Neuralink employees have started their own BCI ventures. Last year saw the launch of Science Corp, headed by former Neuralink president Max Hodax, and Precision Neuroscience, established by Benjamin Rapoport, another original member of Musk’s team. In a November 21 blog post on the company’s website, Science Corp staffers revealed their concept for a neural interface targeted at restoring eyesight in people with retinitis pigmentosa and dry age-related macular degeneration, two forms of serious blindness that don’t have good treatment options. The company is working on demonstrating safety data in animals, according to the blog post.

Meanwhile, Precision Neuroscience is developing a thin, flexible brain implant for paralysis that lays on top of the brain and could be installed through a small slit in the head, rather than drilling a hole into the skull. According to Rapoport, the company has tested its device in pigs and is hoping to get a greenlight from the Food and Drug Administration in 2023 to implant it in a human patient.

NASA Will Not Change the James Webb Telescope’s Name

NASA Will Not Change the James Webb Telescope’s Name

James Webb led NASA in the 1950s and 60s, during the Cold War–era “Lavender Scare,” when government agencies often enforced policies that discriminated against gay and lesbian federal workers. For that reason, astronomers and others have long called for NASA to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. Earlier this year, the space agency agreed to complete a full investigation into Webb’s suspected role in the treatment and firing of LGBTQ employees.

This afternoon, NASA released that long-awaited report by the agency’s chief historian Brian Odom. In an accompanying press release, NASA officials made clear that the agency will not change the telescope’s name, writing: “Based on the available evidence, the agency does not plan to change the name of the James Webb Space Telescope. However, the report illuminates that this period in federal policy—and in American history more broadly—was a dark chapter that does not reflect the agency’s values today.”

Odom was tasked with finding what proof, if any, links Webb to homophobic policies and decisions. Tracking down evidence of contentious 60-year-old events made for a difficult subject of study, Odom says, but he was able to draw on plenty of material from the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Truman Library. “I took this investigation very seriously,” he says.

These allegations include those made by NASA employee Clifford Norton, who filed a lawsuit claiming that he had been fired in 1963 after he was seen in a car with another man. He was taken into police custody, his lawsuit states, and NASA security subsequently brought him to the agency’s headquarters and interrogated him throughout the night. He was later terminated from his job.

Such treatment of federal employees suspected to be gay or lesbian was commonplace at the time, following a 1953 executive order by President Dwight Eisenhower, which listed “sexual perversion” among the kinds of behaviors considered suspicious. Still, the NASA report states, “No evidence has been located showing Webb knew of Norton’s firing at the time. Because it was accepted policy across the government, the firing was, highly likely—though, sadly—considered unexceptional.”

The report and NASA’s announcement frustrate critics who for years have been making a case to change JWST’s name. “Webb has at best a complicated legacy, including his participation in the promotion of psychological warfare. His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument,” wrote Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire, and three other astronomers and astrophysicists in a statement on Substack today. They question the interpretation that a lack of explicit evidence implies that Webb had no knowledge of, or hand in, firings within his own agency, writing: “In such a scenario, we have to assume he was relatively incompetent as a leader: the administrator of NASA should know if his chief of security is extrajudicially interrogating people.”

Prescod-Weinstein believes the timing of this release—on the Friday afternoon before the Thanksgiving holiday—isn’t a coincidence, a way to make the report less widely read. “The fact that they did it even though it’s LGBT STEM Day tells you about the administration’s priorities,” she wrote in an email to WIRED.

NASA usually names telescopes after prominent astronomers, like the Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and Compton telescopes. Webb is an exception. He led the agency while it advanced the space program toward the moon landing and promoted astronomy research, but he was a bureaucrat, not an astronomer.

Even though agency officials made the call to keep Webb’s name, Odom says, “We should still use this history as an example of a past that was traumatic for a lot of people. This past, whatever Webb’s role in it was, is important to us going forward.”

That NASA is choosing not to rename the telescope is “not surprising, but disappointing,” says Ralf Danner, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory astronomer and cochair of the American Astronommical Society’s committee for sexual orientation and gender minorities in astronomy. Whether Webb knew of Norton’s treatment, or whether evidence of that exists, is not really relevant, Danner argues, since Webb stood for those policies as NASA administrator. “He’s just the wrong name to show the future of astronomy.”

A Lab-Grown Meat Startup Gets the FDA’s Stamp of Approval

A Lab-Grown Meat Startup Gets the FDA’s Stamp of Approval

Cultivated meat has been greenlit in the United States for the first time. The decision by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) means that a company called Upside Foods will soon be able to sell chicken made from real animal cells grown in bioreactors instead of requiring the slaughter of live animals.

A positive response from the FDA has long been seen as the next major milestone for the cultivated meat industry. In the past few years, startups in the space have built small-scale production facilities and raised billions of dollars in venture capital funding, but haven’t been able to sell their products to the public. Up until now, the small number of people invited to try cultivated meat have had to sign waivers acknowledging that the products are still experimental.

There are just two smaller regulatory steps remaining until cultivated meat can be made available to the public. Upside’s production facilities still require a grant of inspection from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the food itself will need a mark of inspection before it can enter the US market. These two steps are likely to be completed much more quickly than the long FDA premarket consultation process that resulted in the approval.

“It’s the moment we’ve been working toward for the past, almost seven years now,” says Uma Valeti, Upside’s CEO. “Opening up the US market is what every company in the world is trying to do.”

Different startups are focusing on a range of cultivated meats, including beef, chicken, salmon, and tuna. This announcement applies only to Upside Foods and its cultured chicken, although it’s likely that other declarations will follow soon. The products have been greenit through an FDA process called Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). Through this process, food manufacturers provide the FDA with details of their production process and the product it creates, and once the FDA is satisfied that the process is safe, it then issues a “no further questions” letter.

The FDA decision means that cultivated meat products may soon be available to the public to try, although it’s likely that tastings will be limited to a very small number of exclusive restaurants. Michelin-starred chef Dominique Crenn has already announced that she will serve Upside Foods’ cultivated chicken at her restaurant Atelier Crenn in San Francisco.

Valeti says that he wants the public to have their first taste of Upside chicken through selected restaurants before they can buy and cook it at home. “We would want to bring this to people through chefs in the initial stage,” says Valeti. “Getting chefs excited about this is a really big deal for us. We want to work with the best partners who know how to cook well, and also give us feedback on what we could do better.”

Atelier Crenn won’t be the first restaurant to serve cultivated meat, however. In December 2020, Singaporean regulators gave the green light to cultivated chicken from the San Francisco–based startup Eat Just. The chicken nuggets were sold at a members-only restaurant called 1880 and later made available for delivery.

The Harms of Psychedelics Need to Be Put Into Context

The Harms of Psychedelics Need to Be Put Into Context

In November 2021, when the psychedelics company Compass Pathways released the top-line results of its trial looking at psilocybin in patients with treatment-resistant depression, the stock of the company plunged almost 30 percent. The dive was reportedly prompted by the somewhat-middling results of the research—but also because of the scattering of serious adverse events that occurred during the trial.

Amid the psychedelic renaissance, bringing up their potential harms has been somewhat of a taboo. The field, vilified for decades, has only just recently reentered the mainstream, after all. But as clinical trials get bigger—and the drugs are increasingly commercialized—more negative outcomes are likely to transpire. With the Compass trial results hinting at this, arguably now’s the time to open up the dialog about psychedelics’ potential adverse effects—even if it means tempering the hype that has built up.

Those results, now published in full in the New England Journal of Medicine, represent the largest randomized, controlled, double-blind psilocybin therapy study ever done. The participants—233 of them, across 22 sites in 10 countries—were split into three roughly equal groups. One group received 1 milligram of COMP360, Compass’s synthetic psilocybin, a dose so low it served as the placebo. The next group received 10 mg and the last group 25 mg. Psychological support was also offered alongside the treatment. 

The results were promising, if not painting the picture of a miracle cure. In the 25 mg group, 29 percent of patients were in remission after three weeks compared to just 8 percent in the placebo group. After time, the positive effects waned: After 12 weeks only 20 percent of the high-dose patients were still responding—an improvement over the placebo group that wasn’t statistically significant.

At the same time, 179 of the 233 patients in the trial reported at least one adverse event, like headaches, nausea, fatigue, or insomnia—uncomfortable, sure, but not a huge cause for concern. But 12 patients experienced serious adverse events. These were defined as displays of suicidal ideation, including self-harm. Five of the patients in the highest-dose group were reported to have displayed suicidal behavior, as well as six in the 10 mg group. This was compared to just one in the placebo group.

“Is this expected in a trial like this? To some degree, yes,” says Natalie Gukasyan, assistant professor and medical director for the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research. When you’re working with a patient group as vulnerable as those with treatment-resistant depression, higher rates of suicidal ideation are to be expected. But it’s worth noting, she says, that there were higher rates of these events in the higher-dose group, which brings up the question of whether the drug played a role. One thing she thinks would have been helpful to include in the study was the lifetime history of previous suicide attempts in the participants, which is an important predictor of future suicidal behavior. 

But given the general reticence to dwell on psychedelics’ downsides, the fact that Compass was upfront about the adverse events is a good thing, says Joost Breeksema, a PhD candidate who studies patient experiences of psychedelics at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands. In August 2022, Breeksema published a review that looked at how adverse events in psychedelics research have been flagged, and found that they have been inconsistently and probably underreported. Many of the trials Breeksema looked at reported no adverse effects whatsoever—an unlikely reality. The Compass Pathways research “reported adverse effects more rigorously than many of the other trials in our systematic review,” he says.

The New Math of Wrinkling Patterns

The New Math of Wrinkling Patterns

A few minutes into a 2018 talk at the University of Michigan, Ian Tobasco picked up a large piece of paper and crumpled it into a seemingly disordered ball of chaos. He held it up for the audience to see, squeezed it for good measure, then spread it out again.

“I get a wild mass of folds that emerge, and that’s the puzzle,” he said. “What selects this pattern from another, more orderly pattern?”

He then held up a second large piece of paper—this one pre-folded into a famous origami pattern of parallelograms known as the Miura-ori—and pressed it flat. The force he used on each sheet of paper was about the same, he said, but the outcomes couldn’t have been more different. The Miura-ori was divided neatly into geometric regions; the crumpled ball was a mess of jagged lines.

“You get the feeling that this,” he said, pointing to the scattered arrangement of creases on the crumpled sheet, “is just a random disordered version of this.” He indicated the neat, orderly Miura-ori. “But we haven’t put our finger on whether or not that’s true.”

Making that connection would require nothing less than establishing universal mathematical rules of elastic patterns. Tobasco has been working on this for years, studying equations that describe thin elastic materials—stuff that responds to a deformation by trying to spring back to its original shape. Poke a balloon hard enough and a starburst pattern of radial wrinkles will form; remove your finger and they will smooth out again. Squeeze a crumpled ball of paper and it will expand when you release it (though it won’t completely uncrumple). Engineers and physicists have studied how these patterns emerge under certain circumstances, but to a mathematician those practical results suggest a more fundamental question: Is it possible to understand, in general, what selects one pattern rather than another?

In January 2021, Tobasco published a paper that answered that question in the affirmative—at least in the case of a smooth, curved, elastic sheet pressed into flatness (a situation that offers a clear way to explore the question). His equations predict how seemingly random wrinkles contain “orderly” domains, which have a repeating, identifiable pattern. And he cowrote a paper, published in August, that shows a new physical theory, grounded in rigorous mathematics, that could predict patterns in realistic scenarios.

Notably, Tobasco’s work suggests that wrinkling, in its many guises, can be seen as the solution to a geometric problem. “It is a beautiful piece of mathematical analysis,” said Stefan Müller of the University of Bonn’s Hausdorff Center for Mathematics in Germany.

It elegantly lays out, for the first time, the mathematical rules—and a new understanding—behind this common phenomenon. “The role of the math here was not to prove a conjecture that physicists had already made,” said Robert Kohn, a mathematician at New York University’s Courant Institute, and Tobasco’s graduate school adviser, “but rather to provide a theory where there was previously no systematic understanding.”

Stretching Out

The goal of developing a theory of wrinkles and elastic patterns is an old one. In 1894, in a review in Nature, the mathematician George Greenhill pointed out the difference between theorists (“What are we to think?”) and the useful applications they could figure out (“What are we to do?”).

In the 19th and 20th centuries, scientists largely made progress on the latter, studying problems involving wrinkles in specific objects that are being deformed. Early examples include the problem of forging smooth, curved metal plates for seafaring ships, and trying to connect the formation of mountains to the heating of the Earth’s crust.