A computer chip developed by Neuralink has been implanted in its first human test subject, according to company co-founder and owner Elon Musk, marking a milestone in the cutting-edge field of Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) research.
The first human received an implant from Neuralink yesterday and is recovering well,” Musk announced on Twitter late Monday. “Initial results show promising neuron spike detection.”
The objective of Neuralink’s first foray into BCI is to be able to decode intended movement signals from brain activity to control external devices, such as computers. From there, Musk also laid out the vision for the company’s first product: Telepathy.
“[It] enables control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking,” he tweeted. “Initial users will be those who have lost the use of their limbs…imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal.”
The California-based company, founded in 2016, got the green light from federal regulators at the Food and Drug Administration in September to begin human trials, an Neuralink put out an open call for volunteers for its PRIME study, the mixed acronym standing for “Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface.”
Buzz about the company’s progress was tempered somewhat in November, however, when a Reuters report detailed the painful and sometimes grotesque outcomes of its testing on animals.
The volunteer pool
While no further details on the Sunday procedure or its subject were made available—the Neuralink company blog was last updated nearly five months ago—Neuralink’s recruiting material outlines some of the requirements of participation in its human trials.
“We are looking for individuals who have quadriplegia (limited function in all four limbs) due to spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and are at least one-year post-injury (without improvement),” the company explained in a brochure posted online. Participants must also be at least 22 years old and have a “consistent and reliable caregiver.”
The time commitment includes nine visits—some at a clinic, some at home—over 18 months, as well as twice-weekly, one-hour “research sessions.”
Even after the primary study is completed, Neuralink expects participants to work with them for five more years and another 20 visits.
The study is a test of several components, including the BCI implant itself—called the N1—as well as the robot that will “surgically place the N1 Implant in a region of the brain that controls movement intention.”
The N1 has 1,024 electrodes distributed across 64 threads, “each thinner than a human hair,” Neuralink says, which records and transmits neural activity to a mobile app with the goal of enabling patients to control a computer with their thoughts.
Neuralink says that the implant is “cosmetically invisible.”
A number of research institutions and private companies are developing BCI technology. Few of them however, involve surgical implants.
An animal rights group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, (PCRM) has long condemned Neuralink’s approach.
“Implanted devices like Neuralink’s come with a myriad of problems, including being difficult to repair and having a high potential for severe medical complications in patients,” the group asserted, claiming that the company violated the federal Animal Welfare Act but got “a free pass from the agency responsible for enforcing the law.”
When images of Neuralink’s animal test subjects were released in November, the PCRM said the company was “mutilating and killing monkeys,” citing “chronic infections, paralysis, seizures, and death.”The group has urged Neuralink to halt its animal experiments and to instead focus on improving noninvasive brain-machine interfaces.
“Noninvasive [brain–machine interfaces] can allow for the risk-free monitoring of large-scale neuronal activity across the entire brain” because they use an electroencephalogram (EEG), the group said, adding that in addition to aiding motion and movement, they can already “allow people to communicate directly using a computer.”
Neuralink’s surgical approach is not unique, however.
Houston-based Motif Neurotech, which last week announced an $18.75 Series A fundraising round, is developing “minimally-invasive” wireless therapeutic hardware for mental health.
Neuralink’s rapid advancement to human testing “validates the interest and demand for neurotechnology,” Motif Neurotech CEO Jacob Robinson told the Wall Street Journal.