EletiofeNeuralink’s First Brain Implant Is Working. Elon Musk’s Transparency...

Neuralink’s First Brain Implant Is Working. Elon Musk’s Transparency Isn’t

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The first person to receive a Neuralink brain implant has apparently recovered and can now control a computer mouse using their thoughts, according to Elon Musk, the company’s cofounder.

“Progress is good and the patient seems to have made a full recovery, with no ill effects that we are aware of,” Musk said on February 19 in a Spaces audio conversation on X, in response to a question about the participant’s condition. “[The] patient is able to move a mouse around the screen just by thinking.”

The neuroscience firm, based in Fremont, California, has been tight-lipped about the testing and development of its brain implant, with updates coming from brief social media posts by the company or Musk himself. Making bold claims in fewer than 280 characters is Musk’s usual style, but some scientists WIRED spoke with say the billionaire could stand to be more transparent about his brain implant venture.

Last May, Neuralink posted that it received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to launch the study, and in September, the company said it would begin recruiting paralyzed participants to test the device, which it has dubbed Telepathy. Last month, Musk posted that an initial human subject had received the implant and that “initial results show promising neuron spike detection.”

Neuralink is developing a brain-computer interface, or BCI, which provides a direct connection from the brain to an outside device. BCIs record and analyze brain signals, then translate them into output commands carried out by that device. Musk sees BCIs as a way to eventually merge humans with AI, but for now, Neuralink aims to enable people with paralysis to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone.

Paul Nuyujukian, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University who develops BCIs, says implants like Neuralink’s that are placed in the brain tissue can pick up signals quickly, so it’s “fully reasonable” that Neuralink’s device can already allow a person to move a computer cursor just a few weeks after surgery.

“In our studies, we have successfully had cursor control in the first couple of attempts after implantation, so it’s not outside the realm of reality,” Nuyujukian says.

Academic researchers have been testing BCIs for decades—in animals and in people—so Neuralink’s first human implant isn’t a first in that regard. But Neuralink brings a few key improvements to the table. Its system is fully implantable and wireless with a rechargeable battery, in line the idea that patients will be able to use these devices seamlessly in their daily lives. Many demonstrations of BCIs in academic labs have been with wired setups that use a cable running from the patient’s head to a computer or other external device.

Neuralink’s implant also records from far more individual neurons than previously possible, using 1,024 electrodes distributed across 64 threads, each thinner than a human hair, that sit in the brain’s delicate tissue. Nuyujukian says that’s important for a high-performance BCI.

Some Neuralink rivals, such as Precision Neuroscience, are developing implants that sit on top of the brain, or in the case of Synchron, a stentlike device that’s inserted into a blood vessel and sits against the brain. These devices aim to allow paralyzed people to communicate using digital devices by reading electrical patterns generated from groups of neurons.

Neuralink hasn’t exactly been operating in secrecy—it has livestreamed demonstrations of its technology over the years and published a white paper in 2019—but some researchers say the company hasn’t been the most transparent about its research either. (Neuralink did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Given reports, including by WIRED, that Neuralink’s brain implant may have caused problems in monkeys, bioethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University says the company should be more forthcoming about its research. “I think you owe it to your subject to say, ‘Our science is sound,’ and that has to be confirmed by peers, not just by people with stake in the company,” he says. “The moral duty here is to protect the subject.”

To be clear, Neuralink isn’t legally obligated to reveal details about its human and animal testing.

The FDA does require all phases of drug trials to be listed on ClinicalTrials.gov, a government database that includes information such as the number of participants that will be enrolled in a study, the trial site locations, and the outcomes the trial will assess. But feasibility studies of medical devices that are early in development do not have to register with the site. These studies may include just a few subjects.

Much of what is known about Neuralink’s trial comes from a brochure the company made available last fall. It says people are eligible for the study if they have quadriplegia due to spinal cord injury or the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and are at least 22 years old. The initial study involves several clinic visits over 18 months with long-term follow-up continuing over five years. The study will take approximately six years to complete, according to the brochure.

But Caplan and others think the public deserves more information about the study and the participant’s current condition.

“People care deeply about their brains. It’s the most personal thing to us,” says Justin Sanchez, a technical fellow at Battelle, a nonprofit research organization in Ohio that has conducted human BCI research. “When we start talking about building medical devices for the brain, there’s a need to be transparent.”

Being more open about its research could also curb misinformation about what Neuralink’s technology is actually capable of. BCIs are not yet mind-reading devices in the way people might think, Sanchez says. Subjects go through a training period in which they’re taught to think of an intended action, such as moving a cursor. The implant captures brain signals that encode this intention. Over time, the BCI software learns what the signals associated with this intention look like and translates them into a command that carries out the user’s intention.

“There’s a huge gap between what is being done today in a very small subset of neurons versus understanding complex thoughts and more sophisticated cognitive kinds of things,” Sanchez says. The latter is going to require much more sophisticated neurotechnology—likely multiple implants in different parts of the brain that record from many, many more neurons, he says. Neuralink’s device is implanted in a region of the brain that controls movement intention.

“There’s a public fear of brain manipulation,” Caplan says. In a 2022 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, the majority of American respondents said the widespread use of brain chips to improve cognitive function would be a bad idea. “Starting this out completely in the dark is not the way to keep the public on board.”

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