World’s richest man Elon Musk announced that his company, Neuralink, has successfully implanted a brain chip into a human subject—but what exactly does this achievement mean for society and the scientific community?
The future that sci-fi movies and books envisioned is quickly becoming a reality—perhaps even faster than one can imagine. Virtual reality goggles are starting to enter the market and many companies have been working on creating brain chips that would help people control devices and software with their minds. One of the groundbreaking brands in this list is Neuralink: Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface start-up that aims to help people with neurological conditions navigate the world through advanced technology.
The internet was already abuzz when the company began opening applications for clinical trials last year. Now, it seems like Neuralink is getting one step closer to achieving their goals, as Musk recently announced that the company had successfully implanted its pioneering brain chip into a patient’s brain.
“The first human received an implant from @Neuralink yesterday and is recovering well. Initial results show promising neuron spike detection,” Musk wrote in an X post. Yet the statement is all the scientific community and general public have regarding the details of the surgery. It leaves one wondering: what happens next? Though we don’t have a clear answer yet, below are a few things to keep in mind about Neuralink’s latest breakthrough:
Too Soon for “Success”
There’s no doubt that a successful implant on a human brain is a big step forward for Neuralink. Professor Anne Vanhoestenberghe of King’s College London tells the BBC that while other competitors have also been working on brain-computer interface technologies for years—in the case of Blackrock Neurotech, two decades—Neuralink joins a very small group of companies that have managed to implant their chips on humans.
That said, any good scientist will agree that it’s still a bit too soon to definitively say the operation was “successful.” In an interview with Ben Guarino of Scientific American, John Donoghue, an expert in brain-computer interfaces at Brown University, explains the implications of the new achievement.
According to Donoghue, success “can look very different” depending on a patient’s existing neurological conditions. What’s more, Musk and Neuralink have provided scant information on the operation, which prevents scientists from actually being able to assess its results thoroughly.
“I have to see the data. And commercial entities do this piecemeal-feeding things. The danger with that, of course, is: tomorrow it may stop working,” Donoghue adds.
What Does It Really Mean?
But what exactly does Musk mean when he says “Initial results show promising neuron spike detection”? Again, it’s difficult to make a conclusion at the moment without proper information. However, Donoghue suggests that it may mean the brain chip has picked up signals from the electrical impulses of nerve cells.
The whole idea of the brain chip is to allow a user to control technology through the part of their brain that controls movement intention, reports Reuters. Neuralink wants to start off by allowing users to control cursors or keyboards. Musk hopes that those with neurological conditions could be able to do things they wouldn’t normally do, perhaps even more.
The chip is made up of 64 “highly-flexible” and “ultra-thin” threads that are meant to create a smooth, risk-free implant process and record neural activity, according to Neuralink’s website. What’s more, users should be able to charge the chip’s battery wirelessly for ease of use.
“Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal,” the billionaire wrote in an X post.
Neuralink’s success comes after a few allegations against the company concerning its safety protocols and ethics. Though it received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the clinical trials in May 2023, certain government departments have put them under fire for unsafe practices. For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) charged a fine to the company for moving hazardous materials, reports Reuters. In an exclusive feature, Marisa Taylor of Reuters discussed how veterinary records showed that initial animal tests, namely on monkeys, resulted in seizures, paralysis, and brain swelling.
Patrick Jackson & Tom Gerken of the BBC add that the head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture found no violations of their rules on animal testing in July 2023. However, a separate investigation on the matter is in progress.
Good Goals—But Safety First
Despite the ambiguous developments surrounding the chip, it’s hard to deny that Neuralink and its technology could potentially shape the future of medical technology and brain-computer implants for the better. As its website states, the company is clearly working to “restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow.”
So while many scientists are still wary of the brain chip’s progress, they’ve also expressed an interest in the possibilities it presents—provided that Neuralink puts safety protocols at the forefront of its development in the coming years.
“[It] has great potential to help people with neurological disorders in future and is an excellent example of how fundamental neuroscience research is being harnessed for medical advances,” shares Professor Tara Spires-Jones, president of the British Neuroscience Association, with the BBC. Though Spires-Jones notes that due to the invasive nature of brain-computer interfacing devices, it’ll be quite some time before Neuralink can safely make the product available to the public.
Donoghue shares a similar sentiment, expressing how years of advanced scientific research is coming to fruition. This is due in large part to the financial support that billionaires like Musk can pour into such endeavors.
“I’m really happy to see that there will be (likely, we’ll see what happens with this particular version) a commercial product that will someday reach people and help them,” he shares in his interview for the Scientific American.
Banner photo via Instagram @neura.link.