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Neuralink: Closer to a Computer-Brain Interface for Patients with Paralysis?

Neuralink: Closer to a Computer-Brain Interface for Patients with Paralysis?
Individuals with paralysis may be steps closer to controlling external devices with their thoughts after Neuralink has claimed initial success with its brain-chip implant. (Credit: Neuralink)

Individuals with paralysis may be steps closer to controlling external devices with their thoughts after Neuralink has claimed initial success with its brain-chip implant.

Elon Musk, the company’s founder, said the first human patient to receive its brain-computer interface implant is recovering well and has controlled a computer mouse with thought alone. At a Spaces event on social media platform X, originally known as Twitter, Mr. Musk said:

“Progress is good and the patient seems to have made a full recovery, with no ill effects that we are aware of. The patient is able to move a mouse around the screen just by thinking.”

Mr Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX, former chairman of Tesla and owner of technology operation X Corp, launched Neuralink in 2016.

A US-based American neurotechnology company, with a focus on developing implantable brain-computer interfaces, it announced in September it was searching for individuals to take part in its pioneering development program. Ideal participants would be those with quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. 

Connecting the Nervous System to the Computer

The company is one of many science and medical groups currently working on connecting the nervous system to computer and mobile device technology with the aim of helping to treat those with brain conditions or injuries. 

Neuralink’s hope is that the technology might eventually lead to the restoration of movement and sight in some patients as well—and perhaps even improve memory and intelligence.

Neuralink brain-chip implant (Credit: Neuralink)
Neuralink brain-chip implant (Credit: Neuralink)
Neuralink brain-computer interface - BCI (Credit: Neuralink)
Neuralink brain-computer interface – BCI (Credit: Neuralink)

On its website, Neuralink says its mission is to:

“Create a generalized brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow.”

Controlling a Computer Cursor Using Thought Alone

Mr. Musk has also said in the past that the company’s neurotechnology could potentially ultimately help those with obesity, autism, depression and schizophrenia.

The technology behind any brain-computer interface aims to allow patients with an implant to control a computer cursor or keyboard using thought alone. The Neuralink’s implant, which is believed to be the size of a large coin, is embedded in the skull by the company’s own surgical robot.

Neuralink surgical robot (Credit: Neuralink)
Neuralink surgical robot (Credit: Neuralink)

Ultra-fine wires from the device are connected to the area of the brain that controls movement intention. According to Neuralink, the threads of the implant are too fine to be connected by the human hand, which is why robotic surgery is required. 

Lack of Transparency About the Brain Implant

The lack of transparency in the updates from Neuralink about the brain implant has, however, raised scientific and ethical concerns, as well as claims about a lack of scrutiny.

Also, according to an agency report reviewed by news agency Reuters, U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors have found problems with record keeping and quality controls for animal experiments at Neuralink.

Elon Musk - Neuralink's mission is to "create a generalized brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow." (Credit: Clubic.com)
Elon Musk – Neuralink’s mission is to “create a generalized brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow.” (Credit: Clubic.com)

Laura Cabrera, Associate Professor of Engineering Science and Mechanics and Philosophy, and researcher in Brain Science and Neural Engineering, as well as Neuroethics, at Pennsylvania State University, told Associated Press that Neuralink’s robotic surgery is ground-breaking.

She also observed, however, that any brain surgery carries significant potential risks such as brain hemorrhage or seizure. Shed added:

“So I think we have to be mindful that even though they’re using a novel way to implant the device, we just don’t know if it’s truly going to be a… safer approach for human patients.”

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