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First human successfully receives NeuraLink’s brain chip implant
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First human successfully receives NeuraLink’s brain chip implant

The much-hyped device that interfaces between a brain and computer is certainly a groundbreaking advancement, but experts await data on its safety and capabilities
NeuraLink brain implant
Representational image | Shutterstock

NeuraLink, the brain-computer interface startup founded by billionaire Elon Musk, has successfully implanted its much-hyped device into a human subject. Musk made the announcement on social network X (formerly Twitter) on Monday, claiming that the individual was recovering well and was showcasing “promising” spikes in neural activity.

The procedure is part of NeuraLink’s first human trial, for which it received an approval from the US drug regulator last year, that will focus on allowing people with paralysis operate computers or mobile devices directly with their neural activity.

While this is only an initial demonstration, Musk has claimed that NeuraLink’s implants will restore vision, movement, hearing, and other functionality in people with disabilities. He has also stated that it is a company aim to create human-AI interfaces that merge biological and digital intelligence.

Commenting on the development, Dr Varun Dutt, Associate Professor, School of Computing & Electrical Engineering, IIT Mandi, said, “Deep brain implants could potentially restore lost functions (like sight or movement), enhance cognitive abilities, and provide more sophisticated prosthetic control. However, radical enhancement of cognitive or sensory capabilities is still speculative and far from current technology.”

The implant consists of very thin microwires with a conducting tip that can record nerve cell activity explains Dr Supratim Ray, Associate Professor at the Centre for Neuroscience at IISc. This is then decoded, linking specific patterns to defined outputs that can drive external devices to achieve a brain-computer interface (BCI).

There are currently many brain computer interfaces (BCI) that are in the works. While NeuraLink is more invasive, other human trials are already demonstrating innovative and clinically useful BCI applications with less invasive and risky alternatives to implanted electrodes/threads.

Synchron, a New York based company has created a minimally invasive “Stentrode” device that is delivered into the brain through a blood vessel requiring only a small incision. Once in place, the device records signals and can even stimulate nerves. Synchron already has multiple human trials ongoing, focused on treating paralysis.

But what makes NeuraLink’s device different is that the implant uses electrodes that have a very high bandwidth compared to other devices, according to Ray.

“NeuraLink’s ability to record individual neurons offers a more detailed understanding of brain function, potentially revealing specific neural patterns linked to behaviors, thoughts, or disorders, which broader techniques like EEG/MEG cannot,” says Dutt.

NeuraLink’s method of implanting the electrodes into a brain is also innovative. The company specifically designed a robot surgeon to perform the entire surgery, something that was demonstrated during a livestreamed event in 2020.

“We ultimately want this robot to do essentially the entire surgery — so everything from incision, removing the skull, inserting electrodes, placing the device, and then closing things up,” Musk had said at the 2020 event.

While NeuraLink has made bold and ambitious claims of what it aims to do with its implant, experts says that only time will tell how effective the device will be. “NeuraLink must overcome challenges like long-term safety, minimising tissue response, and reliably interpreting complex neural data, all while proving efficacy in treating neurological conditions,” Dutt points out.

Another concern also remains in the ethical use of implants in humans. “Whether brain implants fundamentally alter identity and humanity will depend on how successful this endeavour is, which we will find out in the coming years,” says Ray.

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