Neuralink to test brain chips on humans for the first time
Elon Musk’s Neuralink wants to help blind people see and heal spinal cord injuries. Human trials are to follow soon.
Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface startup Neuralink shares results of its research in a nearly three-hour presentation. The company plans to venture into human trials for the first time within the next six months, including helping blind people see again.
Neuralink chip to communicate wirelessly with the brain
Neuralink wants to use invasive brain-computer interfaces to extract information from the brain and, ideally, bring it in. In the long term, this should treat or cure blindness, paralysis, and neurodegenerative diseases.
How? A brain chip consisting of thousands of electrodes penetrating the surface of the human brain. Each electrode consists of a wire thinner than a hair. The Neuralink N1 chip communicates wirelessly with a computer.
Giving vision to blind people
During Neuralink’s “Show and Tell” event, researcher Dan Adams unveiled improvements to the technology. In the first generation, Neuralink used 1,024 electrodes. Next-generation designs call for more than 16,000 electrodes.
This dramatically improves the image a blind person could see through the Neuralink chip, according to Adams. With a device on either side of the visual cortex, you get 32,000 points of light to create an image in a blind person, Adam says.
Neuralink also demonstrated practical uses of the brain chip. “Sake” the monkey follows prompts transmitted through the implanted chip and types on a virtual keyboard using mind control (starting at minute 49:00 in the video above).
In the process, a camera records visual data and feeds it into the monkey’s visual cortex. The monkey sees virtual flashes that it perceives at different locations. For wirelessly charging the chip, Neuralink lures the monkeys under a charger with a smoothie. The end goal of the project is a visual prosthesis for blind people.
Improving the quality of life for paralyzed people
In another experiment, Neuralink controls leg movements in a pig through electrodes inserted into the animal’s spinal cord. In the future, this technology will allow people with quadriplegia (explanation), a form of paraplegia, to use their hands again.
The chip establishes the connection between the brain and the hand and serves as a transmitter in both directions. The chip intercepts and transmits movement commands between the brain and the limbs. At the same time, the chip picks up sensory signals from the extremities and informs the brain about the movement processes.
Neuralink (again) plans first human trials
Neuralink’s chips are scheduled to be used in humans for the first time in the next six months. Whether the schedule will be met this time remains to be seen. Elon Musk announced back in 2020 during a podcast with Joe Rogan that the first brain chip tests with humans would be forthcoming. At that time, the timeline predicted chip availability last year.
Musk says Neuralink is being extremely cautious and wants to make sure the chip works well before putting it in a human. Most of the paperwork with the FDA has been filed, Musk says.
Until now, Neuralink’s research has involved animals. Although the idea behind BCIs – helping people live better lives through technology – is noble, the research has huge implications for the lives of living beings.
Neuralink research criticized for animal testing
In February 2022, it was revealed that 15 of 23 monkeys died after Neuralink experiments in which their skulls were drilled open up to ten times to implant Neuralink chips. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) then sued the University of California-Davis because experiments conducted there on behalf of Neuralink caused “extreme suffering” in the animals.
Jeremy Beckham, head of PCRM’s research department, said nearly every single monkey that had the implants placed in its head suffered serious health consequences.
Monkeys were killed with an unapproved substance that destroyed parts of the brain and caused facial trauma, seizures, and recurrent infections at implant sites, he said. Neuralink’s presentation neglects this series of events.
Beckham accuses Neuralink of simply being “good at marketing” with selective videos, but the reality is much grimmer when it comes to animal life.
Elon Musk himself denies the allegations, saying that Neuralink cares deeply about the animals. Neuralink would not conduct research at UC Davis, an “almost exclusively government-funded facility,” and would take “very good care” of some macaque monkeys from there.