Tech billionaire Elon Musk says his company Neuralink is seeking permission to soon test the brain implant in humans.
In a “show and tell” presentation broadcast live on Wednesday night, Musk said his team is in the process of asking US regulators to allow them to test the device. He said the company thinks it should be able to place the implant in a human brain as part of a clinical trial in about six months, but that timeline is far from certain.
Musk’s Neuralink is one of many groups working on connecting brains to computers, studies aimed at helping treat brain disorders, overcoming brain injuries, and other applications.
Rajesh Rao, co-director of the University of Washington Center for Neurotechnology, said the field dates back to the 1960s. “But it really started in the ’90s. And we’ve seen a lot of progress lately, especially in the field of communication brain computer interfaces.”
Watching Musk’s presentation online, Rao said he doesn’t think Neuralink is ahead in terms of brain-computer interface achievements. “But… they’re pretty ahead in terms of actual hardware on devices,” he said.
The Neuralink device is the size of a large coin and is designed to be inserted into the skull with ultra-thin wires running directly to the brain. Musk said that the first two applications in humans will restore vision and help people who can use little or no muscle work quickly use digital devices.
He also said that in a person with a broken neck, he thinks signals from the brain could be bridged to Neuralink devices in the spinal cord.
“We are confident that there are no physical limitations to enabling full-body functionality,” said Musk, who recently took over Twitter and is CEO of Tesla and SpaceX.
In experiments by other teams, implanted sensors allowed paralyzed people to use brain signals to power computers and move robotic arms. In a 2018 study in the journal PLOS ONE, three participants with sub-neck paralysis affecting all their limbs used an experimental brain-computer interface tested by the BrainGate consortium. The interface records neural activity from a tiny sensor in the brain for navigating things like email and apps.
A recent study in the journal Nature by scientists at the Swiss research center NeuroRestore has identified a type of neuron activated by electrical stimulation of the spinal cord that enables nine patients with chronic spinal cord injuries to walk again.
Researchers are also working on brain and machine interfaces to restore vision. Rao said some companies are developing retinal implants, but Musk’s announcement suggests his team will use signals that directly target the brain’s visual cortex; This is an approach some academic groups have followed with “limited success”.
Neuralink spokespersons did not immediately respond to an email sent to the press office. A professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and advisor to Neuralink, Dr. Jaimie Henderson said one reason Neuralink differs from some other devices is that it has the ability to reach deeper layers of the brain. But he added: “There are many different systems with many different advantages.”
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