Elon Musk’s Neuralink recently announced that the company officially completed its first human brain chip implant, marking quite a considerable step forward for the organization. Holding all the X/Twitter, Tesla, and SpaceX drama on pause, the attention is now all on the ‘Telepathy’ device, which after claiming all the necessary approvals last year, was finally able to advance from its animal testing phase to move to a human participant. Reports suggest the patient is recovering well after the implant procedure. Neuralink’s Telepathy is not the first to reach this milestone of executing a human implant but it’s definitely one of the most talked about right now considering how we treat all things “Musk.”
The first human received an implant from @Neuralink yesterday and is recovering well.
Initial results show promising neuron spike detection.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 29, 2024
Even keeping the founder’s infamy aside, this degree of advancement in technology is nothing to scoff at. The company has a goal of “enabling people with paralysis to control external devices with their thoughts,” and if successful, the tiny device could change how we look at impairments and physical disabilities entirely.
Neuralink’s First Human Implant—How Did We Get Here?
Brain chip startup Neuralink was founded years ago in 2016, by Elon Musk and a team of seven scientists and engineers, according to Tech.co, united by a vision to build a brain-computer interface that could convert thoughts into instructions. The idea was to be able to convert the brain signal into direct action, possibly operating an external device just by thinking about what you wanted it to do. Extending this ability back to the spine and the internal workings of the human body, it could technically be used to move parts of the body that had otherwise lost motor activity.
By establishing or restoring neural links with the body, a chip like the one designed by Elon Musk’s Neuralink could potentially help someone walk again or regain motor control that was earlier lost to them. With a deeper understanding of neurological functioning, this could very well be extended to treating neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, where the elements of brain functioning that are lost could perhaps be restored. The possibilities are endless.
With the N1 implant of the Neuralink human trial, the device is surgically inserted into the brain through a hole in the skull, with ultra-fine threads reaching out to the surface of the gray matter of the brain, specifically in the region where movement is controlled. As unsettling and dystopian as it sounds, Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain chip could be a revolutionary step forward for all of mankind, if these current trials go off successfully.
Understanding the Neuralink Human Trial
Things were looking a little shaky for the company back in 2022 when Reuters reported that the company’s animal testing procedures had resulted in the death of 1500 animals—sheep, monkeys, and pigs—after the investigation was opened up by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General. The company was accused of violating the Animal Welfare Act through their trials after employees reportedly appeared uneasy about the excessive number of failed tests at the organization. Musk’s companies are known for having poor working conditions but it appeared this extended to the animals it worked on. The CEO attempted to irrationally speed things up at the company leading to many botched experiments, according to Reuters.
Such testing is not against the law, especially under the umbrella of healthcare, but unnecessary losses and cruelty are never part of the plan. Brain chip startup Neuralink has repeatedly faced such controversy over the last two years, however, these have apparently not gotten in the way of the Neuralink human trial.
Labeled PRIME—Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface—the clinical trial recently began recruiting human volunteers for its study, specifically looking for those 22 and above with quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), with the condition having extended for a year prior without improvements. “The N1 Implant records neural activity through 1024 electrodes distributed across 64 threads, each thinner than a human hair,” according to the PRIME brochure.
According to the Neuralink website, the N1 implant is inserted by the R1 surgical robot and once complete, the implant begins to record brain signals that are transmitted wirelessly to an app that can decode it. This study reportedly already has one participant who has been successfully implanted with the device, but this is only the beginning of the test. The trials should go on for the next 6 years following the first year that will be invested in the primary phase of the study.
The Neuralink valuation remains undisclosed but estimates put it at $5 billion currently. As we hear more about the Neuralink human trial, we could see these estimates increase but all appears quite on that front right now. The hope remains that Elon Musk’s Neuralink has not rushed into the human trial phase without careful consideration of each element of its Telepathy implant but we’ll only know more about this as the trial proceeds.