During a “Show and Tell” recruitment event Wednesday night, Elon Musk‘s health tech venture Neuralink shared updates on its brain-implant technology. Musk stated during the event that he intends to obtain one of the implants once they are available.
Musk stated that two of the company’s applications will aim to restore vision, even for people who were born blind, and that a third application will focus on the motor cortex by restoring “full body functionality” for people who have had their spinal cords severed.
Musk stated that Neuralink could begin testing the motor cortex technology in humans in as little as six months.
“Obviously, we want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device in a human, but we’re submitted, I think, most of our paperwork to the FDA,” he said.
Because none of Neuralinks’ devices have been tested on humans or approved by the FDA, Xing Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, is sceptical.
“Neuralink is a company, it doesn’t have to answer to shareholders,” she said. “I don’t know how much oversight is involved, but I think it’s very important for the public to always keep in mind that before anything has been approved by the FDA, or any governmental regulatory body, all claims need to be very, very skeptically examined.”
Musk and a group of other scientists and engineers founded Neuralink in 2016. It aims to create brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, which connect the human brain to computers capable of deciphering neural signals.
Musk put tens of millions of dollars of his own money into the company and has claimed, without evidence, that Neuralink’s devices could enable “superhuman cognition,” allow paralyzed people to operate smartphones or robotic limbs with their minds, and “solve” autism and schizophrenia.
Musk stated in the company’s presentation on Wednesday, “as miraculous as it may sound, we’re confident that it is possible to restore full body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord.”
Musk showed a video of a monkey with a computer chip implanted in its skull playing “telepathic video games,” which Neuralink first demonstrated over a year ago (via CNBC).
The billionaire, who also owns Tesla, SpaceX, and Twitter, stated at the time that he wants to implant Neuralink chips into quadriplegics with brain or spinal injuries so that they can “control a computer mouse, or their phone, or really any device just by thinking.”
Neuralink has been chastised for its alleged treatment of monkeys, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine demanded on Wednesday that Musk release information about experiments on monkeys that resulted in internal bleeding, paralysis, chronic infections, seizures, declining psychological health, and death.
According to Anna Wexler, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Neuralink’s flashy presentations are unusual for companies in the medical devices space.
She believes it is risky to instill hope in people with severe disabilities, especially if they may suffer injuries as the technology is implanted during surgery. Wexler urged people to put on their “sceptical hats” when it came to Neuralink’s big claims.
“From an ethical perspective, I think that hype is very concerning,” she said. “Space or Twitter, that’s one thing, but when you come into the medical context, the stakes are higher.”
Chen, an expert in brain-computer interfaces, believes Neuralink’s implants would necessitate a highly invasive procedure. In order to insert the device into the brain tissue itself, doctors would need to create a hole in the skill.
Nonetheless, she believes that some people are willing to take risks.
“There’s quite a few disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s and obsessive-compulsive disorder in which people have received brain implants and the disorders have been treated quite successfully, allowing them to have an improved quality of life,” Chen said. “So I do feel that there is a precedent for doing this.”
Wexler believes the decision will ultimately come down to an individual patient’s risk-benefit analysis.
Neuralink is not the only company attempting to innovate through the use of brain-computer interfaces, and many have made significant progress in recent years. Blackrock Neurotech plans to launch a BCI system next year, making it the first commercially available BCI in history.
Synchron received FDA approval to begin a clinical trial for a permanently implanted BCI in 2021, and Paradromics is reportedly planning to begin in-human testing in 2023 (via STAT).