Elon Musk hopes to conduct the first human trials in 2023
For the fourth year in a row, Elon Musk hopes to be able to test Neuralink chips on humans next year. During the Neuralink Show this Wednesday, November 30, 2022, the company announced an improvement to its product. The billionaire says he is confident of getting the necessary approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Has Neuralink really made a breakthrough?
In his presentation, the CEO of Neuralink showed the progress of his experiments with two monkeys that can move computer cursors with thought. This result surprised scientists: it was already achieved in 2006 (pdf). At the time, the experiment also required heavier equipment, consisting of a helmet mounted on the patients’ heads connected to a computer by cables. Today, researchers believe that they do not see a revolutionary idea from the company. A confident Elon Musk claims that the device will allow paralyzed people to operate a computer outside the laboratory. He also noted that the chip will restore sight to the blind and can restore the abilities of the disabled.
The CEO has already trained us to deliver on such promises. During the Neuralink conference in 2020, Elon Musk stated that the device “ solve » problems like insomnia in addition to paralysis. Journalists on the site are no longer fooled by the lightness of Musk’s commitments, if the audience applauds, they emphasize that the progress presented is far from the promised results.
Scientists testify New York Times, as science fiction. Currently, Neuralink is facing difficulties not only in its stated ambitions, but also in its scientific research. The company has tested the devices on sheep, pigs and primates, but its use of animals such as guinea pigs sparked controversy last February.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an animal rights group, later turned to internal Neuralink documents: Between 2017 and 2020, 15 of 23 guinea pig monkeys died after being implanted. In its defense, the company published photos showing primates being tested in good conditions. He added that the use of guinea pigs has always been carried out within the framework of the applicable law. The Food and Drug Administration requires that all new medical devices be tested on animals.
Neuralink has had some success though, the company may rely on a monkey christened Pager, who plays Pong with a paralyzed man in 2021. In 2020, the company succeeded in analyzing a chick named Gertrud, who had an implant in her nose to detect neural connections.
The FDA has already allowed companies to test similar devices on humans
After these final tests and before moving on to humans, Neuralink needs FDA approval. The regulator will look at safety and benefits/risks for patients. Experts will have to determine after the operation that the device did not damage the brain. The device will also be tested for life to make sure brain fluids won’t eat away at the chip and the insulation surrounding its hundreds of wire electrodes. If such a phenomenon occurred, it would cause the chip to be rejected and the patient’s brain damaged.
During this week’s Neuralink Show, Elon Musk was happy to present most of the documents to the agency. It has shown virtual confidence in its chances of getting regulatory approval.
In the past, the FDA has already given permission to other companies to investigate similar devices. One of the oldest dates back to 2004, when scientists in Utah tested a device equipped with spikes implanted in the brain. The device, called BrainGate, is connected to a small computer to transmit data. Thanks to this technology, in 2011, paralyzed people were able to lift a cup of coffee with a robotic arm, in 2012, to write a book, and in 2016, to lift a knife.
These various innovations have led to a frenzy for the creation of specialized startups. One of the main competitors to Neuralink today is Synchron. The company, which is an expert in brain-machine interfaces (BCI), acquired the right to implant in humans in July 2021. His device is easier than Neuralink because it does not require opening the patient’s skull. A chip is implanted in a vein in the throat to control the motor part of the brain. Once deployed, it detects the patient’s motor intent and transmits it wirelessly.
The company’s ambitions with this technology are less ambitious than Elon Musk’s, but it has merit. The company wants to make life easier for paralyzed people by giving them the ability to control electrical devices with their thoughts. The first trials in Australia and the United States were conclusive: patients unable to move or speak were able to communicate wirelessly through a computer. Another Eindhoven-based company, Onward, has also made great progress in partially restoring movement to people with spinal cord injuries.
Facing off against its rivals, Neuralink boasts potential processing power by betting on invasive surgery. To get the chip, the patient is obliged to remove a small part of the brain, but this method would achieve better results and restore more functions in people. Elon Musk announced miracles in 2020, now he plans them for 2022… Before we get excited, so we have to wait and see.