Elon Musk’s biotechnology company, Neuralink, has successfully placed a brain implant in its first human subject, Musk reported Monday.
In a series of statements posted to social media, Musk said the purpose of the device, named “Telepathy,” was to allow the user to control electronic devices via thought. Musk reported that the first subject was “recovering well” and showing “promising neuron spike detection.”
Neuralink received FDA approval in May 2022 and has been recruiting human subjects for the past several months, NPR reports. According to Neuralink’s website and Musk’s social media, the intended use of the product is to aid communication for those who have limited ability of their hands due to paralysis or diseases like ALS.
“Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer,” Musk wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “That is the goal.”
How does Telepathy work?
Neuralink hopes that the wireless brain-computer interface will allow people to control external devices with their thoughts. According to the company’s website, the Telepathy device measures and interprets the brain’s neural activity and translates that into commands for electronic devices.
The implant, which is described on Neuralink’s website as small and “cosmetically invisible,” is surgically placed in the part of the brain that plans movement. When a user intends to move in a certain way, the hope is that Telepathy will carry out that movement for them via wireless connection.
The device itself is made of minuscule chips and electronics. 1,024 electrodes are distributed across 64 flexible, thin threads, which record neural activity. That activity is then transmitted to an application, which decodes the activity and intents and transforms them into device commands.
Because the device is so small and placed in such a sensitive area of the brain, it is inserted by Neuralink’s own surgical robot, which uses a needle thinner than a hair to place each thread of the device.
Who is eligible for Neuralink?
Neuralink’s product is still going through clinical trials for use as a medical device and has not yet been approved for sale. The company is still recruiting patients for the trial, and its website states Neuralink is specifically seeking out those with “limited or no ability to use both hands due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).”
Musk said the product’s intended initial customers would be those who had lost the use of their limbs. It is unclear when the product is expected to become available for purchase and whether it would eventually be implanted in those who do not have limited hand function.
What are the different types of brain implants?
Neuralink’s Telepathy is not the only brain-computer interface in development. According to the National Library of Medicine, there are currently over 40 clinical trials in progress to study brain-computer interface devices.
Several of these implants have proven successful. The New York Times reported last year that a man who had previously been paralyzed from the waist down was able to walk again after implants were placed in his skull and spine to stimulate his spinal cord.
Brain interface company Synchron has been testing a device similar to Telepathy for the past several years, per CNBC. While Synchron’s device also aims to allow paralyzed users to control electronic devices with their minds, it functions slightly differently and is inserted through the brain’s blood vessels.
This brain interfacing technology has garnered both praise and criticism, with critics warning that human integration with technology may pose risks. Tristan Harris, founder of the Center for Humane Technology, told NPR that our overuse of electronics may contribute to short attention spans.
“What got us there wasn’t, ‘Let’s make our attention spans short,’” he said. “What got us there was, ‘Let’s give ourselves superpowers.’ And we didn’t know ourselves well enough that when we gave ourselves superpowers, we debased our way of making attention.”