Elon Musk hopes to test brain implant in humans next year
In a presentation showcasing the Neuralink implant that Elon Musk hopes will one day connect the human brain to a computer, two monkeys reportedly moved computer cursors with their brains.
The feat was first documented by others in a human in 2006 in the pre-YouTube era and with much more cumbersome technology, tethering patients to a computer with a cord.
Mr. Musk’s presentation on Wednesday evening offered few significant new features compared to previous demonstrations of the device. He went on to claim that the implant could make computer control possible for people with paralysis outside of a lab. But experts in the field questioned whether the demo showed major progress with the device, especially given the scale of work underway nationwide.
“These are incremental advances,” said Daniel Yoshor, a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine who has worked with similar devices, after watching the presentation. “The material is impressive but does not represent a dramatic advance in restoring or improving brain function.”
Neuralink does not have Food and Drug Administration approval to sell the device. Mr. Musk said on Wednesday that the company had submitted most of its documents to the agency to seek permission to implant its device in a human. He predicted a human test in six months, but any steps toward human trials would be up to the FDA after a full evaluation of the risks of surgical implantation and the safety of the device.
Neuralink originally scheduled the event for late October, before Mr. Musk, a multi-billionaire, postponed the presentation amid one of the most chaotic months of his career. He recently completed his recurring purchase of Twitter, which has focused much of his attention – and generated considerable controversy – on the management of the social media company.
As Mr. Musk juggles that and other tasks — he also oversees electric car maker Tesla and rocket company SpaceX — Neuralink is emerging from a period of change. Last year, Max Hodak, the company’s president and one of its co-founders, left to start his own business in the field. Neuralink’s chief executive is officially Jared Birchall, a wealth manager who runs Mr. Musk’s family office.
Wednesday night’s presentation focused on the “Link” device, which looks like a stack of several inch-wide pieces with hundreds of fine wires. A surgical robot would cut a hole in the skull and slide the electrode wires into the gray matter of the brain, according to Mr. Musk’s 2020 company presentation. The coin-shaped piece would sit flush with the skull.
Leaders in brain-computer interface technology closely watched Neuralink’s investment in a device that worked without wires or protruding hardware. Yet Mr. Musk’s presentations so far have concerned and disappointed many.
A 2021 Neuralink presentation of a monkey playing the video game Pong with its mind was similar to a primate demonstration at Brown University in 2001, though it had a much clumsier system.
In a 2020 presentation Showing a pig with the implant, Mr Musk suggested the device could “solve” conditions such as paralysis and insomnia and could even give a user “superhuman vision”. Such apps sound like science fiction to scientists who focus only on restoring basic functions, like typing, talking or lifting a fork, to those who have lost them after spinal cord injury or diagnosis. severe. For these patients, the benefits weigh favorably against the small, but serious, risk of brain surgery.
“No one is talking about implanting able-bodied people,” said Cindy Chestek, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan, whose lab works to restore function to amputees.
On Wednesday night, Mr Musk said plans for his device included allowing the blind to see and giving someone with a severed spinal cord “full body functionality”. The claims drew applause from the audience, but do not reflect the state of the field.
“I wouldn’t say that with confidence,” Dr Yoshor said after Mr Musk claimed the Neuralink device would give sight to people who had never seen before. “I would be very unsure of this type of device in a patient with congenital blindness.”
Safety will be the FDA’s primary concern in determining whether the device could be tested in humans, said Cristin Welle, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Colorado who helped write the FDA’s guidelines on brain-computer implants before leaving the agency in 2016.
Dr Welle said regulators will focus on whether the device would damage the brain or pose unreasonable risks to patients. She said the durability of the device would also be considered, given the possibility of brain fluids penetrating through the insulation covering the hundreds of hair-like electrodes on the Link device.
So far, Neuralink has tested the device on sheep, pigs and primates, according to records filed with the Department of Agriculture.
Several other companies and scientists have already obtained FDA approval to study similar devices in humans. In 2004, researchers conducted human trials with the Utah Network, a device about the size of a baby aspirin and equipped with spikes surgically placed on the brain. It connects via a wire to a small computer installed on the head which transmits to a computer. This neural interface system is called BrainGate.
With the pieces in place, scientists look for patterns in the electrical current of neurons that signal the brain’s intention to type letters or raise a hand. The code, in turn, commands a computer or robot to perform the task.
Nearly three dozen patients have undergone testing with the Utah Network device. Using this technology, people with paralysis or other disabilities lifted a cinnamon latte with a robotic arm in 2011, typed letters quoting Shakespeare in 2012, and lifted bites of mashed potatoes in 2016.
But the Utah network is not suitable for long-term use. It rises out of the skull, attaches users to a cord connected to a computer and puts them at risk of brain infection. For these and other reasons, companies like Neuralink are working to build fully implanted devices.