Decades of research and lofty ambitions to merge minds with computers

It wasn’t the first small device implanted in a human brain. Still, Elon Musk’s announcement on Monday has caught the attention of the small community of scientists who have worked for decades to treat certain disabilities and conditions by directly tapping into the body’s nervous system.

“Getting a device into someone’s body is no small feat,” says Robert Gaunt, associate professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh. “But I don’t think even Elon Musk would have taken on a project like this without the research and demonstrated capabilities in neuroscience over decades.”

Musk’s announcement was sudden and offered little information beyond the news itself: “The first human was implanted with… @Neuralink yesterday and is recovering well. The first results show promising detection of neuron spikes.”

Many scientists applauded Neuralink’s announcement, but were also careful to note that the company’s clinical trial is in its very early stages and not much information has been released publicly. Still, researchers say Neuralink has made significant gains and is doing exactly what startups do best: taking what’s learned through basic science and trying to create a real, viable product.

It’s too early to know whether Neuralink’s implant will be effective in people, but the company’s announcement is an “exciting development,” says Gaunt, whose own work focuses on the use of implants — devices known as ​​as brain-computer interfaces – to restore motor control and functions. such as people’s sense of touch.

He said Neuralink’s new milestone gives new impetus to an industry that has already seen rapid progress over the past 15 years.

The first brain-computer interface was implanted in a human in the late 1990s, a study led by a pioneering neurologist named Phil Kennedy.

The idea was that these devices could tap into the brain circuits that remain intact after an injury to perform basic movements and functions. For example, when someone thinks about moving their hands or watches someone else move their hand, many of the same neurons in the brain are active as if they were performing the movement themselves, says Jennifer Collinger, associate professor in the department of physical education. medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh.

“You can find patterns of activity in the neural data that correlate with those movements, so you can essentially reverse that relationship and then give them control over the actual movement,” she said.

In 2004, a small device known as the Utah array was implanted in a human for the first time, allowing a paralyzed man to control a computer cursor with his neural impulses. The device, invented by Richard Normann of the University of Utah, looks like a small chip with thin dots that are actually dozens of tiny electrodes. The array is designed to be attached to the skull through an opening in the skin.

Using the Utah array, scientists have been able to demonstrate how brain-computer interfaces can help people control a robotic arm with their minds, stimulate their own muscles and limbs, use computers and other external devices, and even decode handwriting and speech.

“That was all a very important proof-of-concept to show that this technology could be useful,” says Collinger, whose own work focuses on restoring arm and hand function so that patients with paralysis don’t use these appendages. can only move, but can also use they can manipulate objects and perform more skillful movements that include tactile cues and other forms of sensory feedback. The idea is to enable a wider range of functions necessary for everyday life.

Enter Neuralink. Musk’s startup, along with other similarly private companies like Synchron and Precision Neuroscience, is essentially using what’s been learned over the decades to make brain-computer interfaces more practical for more patients.

Neuralink received approval from the Food and Drug Administration last year to conduct its first clinical trial in humans. Details about who was selected and the procedure for implanting the device, which Musk said took place on Sunday, were scarce, but the company has developed a brain implant that allows people, such as patients with severe paralysis, to control a computer. phone or other external device using their thoughts.

The startup has already made a number of big leaps forward.

Unlike the Utah array, Neuralink’s device is fully implantable, meaning patients ultimately experience fewer limitations; Most implants require people to perform activities in a controlled laboratory environment.

“That was a huge technical challenge,” Gaunt said. “That was the kind of thing that academics and other people had avoided for decades, but it really took a difficult and concerted engineering effort to actually build it.”

There have been some bumps along the way. The company became embroiled in controversy after activist groups and internal staff complaints alleged that Neuralink abused some of the animals used in experiments. A federal investigation found no evidence of any wrongdoing other than an “adverse surgical event” in 2019 that the company self-reported, according to Reuters.

Neuralink isn’t the first to put a fully implantable brain-computer interface into a human patient, but Gaunt said the company has improved by leaps and bounds how much these devices can record.

Neuralink also uses innovative robotic surgery, rather than a specialized neurosurgeon, to implant the device.

“That’s very different from what people have done before,” says Sergey Stavisky, assistant professor in the department of neurological surgery at the University of California, Davis, and co-director of the UC Davis Neuroprosthetics Lab.

Stavisky said automating the procedure with a robot could make it more efficient and effective in the long run.

“You can put more in, you can put them in quickly, you can avoid blood vessels,” he said, “but it’s also just hard and new, and you have to show that the robot is safe.”

Demonstrating safety will be one of the key functions of Neuralink’s clinical trial. In the coming months, the startup will have to demonstrate that its device can function without serious adverse effects.

Whether the implant works as intended also remains to be seen. In his announcement on

Without data, it’s hard to know what that means, but Gaunt said it likely indicates that the electrodes are in place, that a nearby neuron has fired, and that the implant can essentially detect that activity.

“It basically means that, at least on some level, it works,” he said.

Musk said the first clinical trials will focus on treating people with paralysis or spinal cord injury. If the device works, it could one day be used to address a range of conditions.

Dr. David Brandman, a neurosurgeon who co-directs the UC Davis Neuroprosthetics Lab with Stavisky, already uses fully implanted devices to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease, seizures and abnormal pain.

When it comes to medical needs, brain-computer interfaces could have a huge impact, he said, including for stroke survivors and patients with spinal cord injury, paralysis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

In addition to clinical applications, the imagination can easily run wild with sci-fi ideas about bioengineering. Musk himself has fueled those fantasies by saying in 2022 that he plans to one day get one of Neuralink’s implants.

However, many scientists think this kind of thinking is too far out in the distant future – and not very practical.

“I think it’s really too early to talk about that,” Brandman said. “There are people in need, and any emphasis on ‘what if’ and ‘what could happen’ does a disservice to people who need a device.”

And while the idea of ​​brain-controlled devices might point to the potential to augment human capabilities, scientists agree that so far there has been no demonstration that these implants can improve functions compared to what a non- disabled person can do.

“The idea that these devices will allow us to achieve any kind of superhuman abilities is just science fiction at this point,” Gaunt said.

Still, the Neuralink clinical trial represents a major development in the fields of neuroscience and bioengineering. And rather than overshadow their own efforts, Gaunt and others said it’s natural for industry to step in and build on what academia has accomplished.

“Universities and academic labs are places that really excel at breaking new ground, going places no one has gone before and trying things that are far too risky for companies and investors to put their money into,” he said. Gaunt.

For example, when brain implants showed real potential, private companies began stepping in with resources and capital dwarfing what is available through research grants to build a commercially viable product, he added.

If anything, Gaunt said Neuralink’s early successes are a testament to the importance of funding basic scientific research.

However, where all the industrial developments leave those in academia could be more difficult to predict.

Stavisky said it is up to the scientific community to discover the next frontier in the field, likening the process to looking ahead to the wave and advancing the science in a way that can again translate to commercial developments in the future.

That doesn’t necessarily mean all the high-profile headlines and attention on Musk and Neuralink are ineffective, Gaunt said.

“Every now and then when things like this happen, I wake up with an existential crisis,” he said, “but then reality sets in and I think about the fact that there will always be challenges and basic science that needs to be addressed. dissolved.”

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