Neuralink, the brain implant startup founded by Elon Musk, has said that it has made progress toward implanting brain implants in humans.
The business announced today that it has gotten approval from a hospital institutional review board and will start recruiting paralyzed people to test its experimental brain implant. These boards are independent bodies set up to keep an eye on scientific research involving human participants and alert researchers to any issues. Calling this “the Prime Study” for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface, Neuralink is the company behind this.
When WIRED emailed Neuralink asking for an interview, company executives did not immediately answer, nor did they say where the trial will be held.
One of the few businesses creating brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, is Neuralink. BCIs are systems that gather brain signals, analyze them, and convert them into orders to operate an external device. The company announced on X, formerly Twitter, in May that it had been given the go-ahead by the US Food and Drug Administration to carry out its first-in-human clinical investigation. However, at that time, no additional information was provided.
Neuralink says that the initial objective of their brain-computer interface (BCI) will be to “grant people the ability to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone” in a statement on its website. The clinical trial will evaluate the BCI’s functionality as well as the safety of the company’s implant and surgical robot.
For those who are interested in finding out if they might be eligible for the study, Neuralink has established a patient register. Neuralink states in a brochure on its website that it is seeking subjects who are at least 22 years old and suffer quadriplegia, or paralysis in all four limbs, as a result of either amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or cervical spinal cord injury. Over 18 months, people selected for participation in the study will get nine in-person clinic visits in addition to at-home treatments. Neuralink estimates that it will take six years to finish the study.
According to the business, Neuralink’s coin-sized implant is invisible once it is in place. Using 1,024 electrodes spaced over 64 threads that are each thinner than a human hair, it monitors brain activity.
The implant will be surgically inserted into the brain region of the robot that governs movement intention during the trial. Once implanted, the device is intended to remotely record and send brain impulses to an app that decodes the intention behind a movement.
The hospital that has received approval from the institutional review board, the precise area of the brain in which the device will be implanted, and the final number of participants in the trial have all been kept a secret by the firm.
Musk discussed two potential uses for the implant last November at a Neuralink “show and tell”: helping paralyzed individuals operate technological equipment and helping them regain their vision. However, the announcement from today made no mention of a visual prosthesis.
Only a few businesses are vying for market share with BCIs, including Neuralink. Despite being utilized in experiments since the 1960s, none of these devices are marketed commercially. Other research projects have made it possible for paralyzed persons to operate prosthetic limbs and computers with their thoughts, or to talk through a computer, primarily in laboratory environments.
Neuralink’s rival Synchron has demonstrated that their implant can be used at home to enable paralyzed individuals to do email, shopping, and banking online. Instead of being placed straight into the brain, the company’s implant is threaded up via the jugular vein to rest against the brain, resembling a flexible mesh stent.
Two former workers at Neuralink launched their own BCI businesses. In 2021, former Neuralink president Max Hodax founded Science Corp. to create a prosthetic that would give blind individuals artificial eyesight. In 2020, Benjamin Rapoport, a former team member of Musk’s, established Precision Neuroscience. In order to test the implant’s capacity to read and record electrical activity, the company temporarily implanted the gadget in three patients’ brains earlier this year.
According to Rice University electrical and computer engineering professor Jacob Robinson, the 18-month duration of this trial is longer than that of other earlier clinical trials using brain implants. (Usually, the gadgets are removed when the research is over.) Robinson, the CEO and co-founder of Motif Neurotech, which is creating a brain implant to treat depression, says, “I think this is good news for people who will be looking to benefit from this procedure.” “While it’s not ideal that these technologies will work for a few years, this is a great first step.”