Neuralink logo displayed on a phone screen, a silhouette of a paper in the shape of a human face and a binary code displayed on a screen are seen in this multiple exposure illustration photo taken in Krakow, Poland on December 10, 2021.
Jakub Porzycki | Nurphoto | Getty Images
Elon Musk’s health tech venture Neuralink shared updates to its brain-implant technology during a “show and tell” recruitment event Wednesday night.
Musk said two of the company’s applications will aim to restore vision, even for people who were born blind, and a third application will focus on the motor cortex by restoring “full body functionality” for people with severed spinal cords.
Neuralink could begin to test the motor cortex technology in humans in as soon as six months, Musk said.
“Obviously, we want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device in a human, but we’re submitted, I think, most of our paperwork to the FDA,” he said.
Since none of Neuralinks’ devices have been tested on humans or approved by the FDA, Wednesday’s announcements warrant skepticism, said Xing Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“Neuralink is a company, it doesn’t have to answer to shareholders,” she told CNBC. “I don’t know how much oversight is involved, but I think it’s very important for the public to always keep in mind that before anything has been approved by the FDA, or any governmental regulatory body, all claims need to be very, very skeptically examined.”
Neuralink was founded in 2016 by Musk and a group of other scientists and engineers. It strives to develop brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, that connect the human brain to computers that can decipher neural signals.
Musk invested tens of millions of his own personal wealth into the company and has said, without evidence, that Neuralink’s devices could enable “superhuman cognition,” enable paralyzed people to operate smartphones or robotic limbs with their minds someday, and “solve” autism and schizophrenia.
The company’s presentation Wednesday echoed these lofty ambitions, as Musk claimed that “as miraculous as it may sound, we’re confident that it is possible to restore full body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord.”
Musk showed footage of a monkey with a computer chip in its skull playing “telepathic video games,” which Neuralink first debuted over a year ago. The billionaire, who is also the CEO of TeslaSpaceX and the new owner of Twitter, said at the time that he wants to implant Neuralink chips into quadriplegics who have brain or spinal injuries so that they can “control a computer mouse, or their phone, or really any device just by thinking. “
Neuralink has come under fire for its alleged treatment of monkeys, and the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine called on Musk Wednesday to release details about experiments on monkeys that had resulted in their internal bleeding, paralysis, chronic infections, seizures, declining psychological health and death.
Jeff Miller/University of Wisconsin–Madison
Neuralink’s flashy presentations are unusual for companies in the medical devices space, said Anna Wexler, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She said it’s risky to encourage people who have serious disabilities to get their hopes up, especially if they could possibly incur injuries as the technology is implanted during surgery.
Wexler encouraged people to put on their “skeptic hat” about Neuralink’s big claims.
“From an ethical perspective, I think that hype is very concerning,” she said. “Space or Twitter, that’s one thing, but when you come into the medical context, the stakes are higher.”
Chen, who specializes in brain-computer interfaces, said Neuralink’s implants would require subjects to undergo a very invasive procedure. Doctors would need to create a hole in the skill in order to insert the device into the brain tissue itself.
But even so, she thinks some people would be willing to take the risk.
“There’s quite a few disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder in which people have received brain implants and the disorders have been treated quite successfully, allowing them to have an improved quality of life,” Chen said. “So I do feel that there is a precedent for doing this.”
Wexler said she believes the decision would ultimately come down to an individual patient’s personal risk-benefit calculation.
Neuralink is not the only company trying to innovate using brain-computer interfaces, and many have made big strides in recent years. Blackrock Neurotech is on track to bring a BCI system to market next year, which would make it the first commercially available BCI in history. Synchron received FDA approval in 2021 to begin a clinical trial for a permanently implanted BCI, and Paradromics is reportedly gearing up to begin in-human testing in 2023.