(AP) – Tech billionaire Elon Musk said his company Neuralink is seeking permission to soon test its brain implant in people.
In a “show and tell” presentation broadcast live Wednesday night, Musk said his team is in the process of asking US regulators to allow them to test the device. He said he believes the company should be able to place the implant in a human brain as part of a clinical trial in about six months, although that timeframe is far from certain.
Musk’s Neuralink is one of many groups working to link brains to computers, efforts aimed at helping treat brain disorders, overcome brain injuries and other applications.
The field dates back to the 1960s, said Rajesh Rao, co-director of the Center for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington. “But it really took off in the 1990s. And more recently, we’ve seen a lot of progress, especially in the area of communication brain-computer interfaces.”
Rao, who watched Musk’s presentation online, said he doesn’t think Neuralink is ahead of the pack in terms of brain-computer interface achievements. “But…they’re pretty far along in terms of the actual hardware in the devices,” he said.
The Neuralink device is about the size of a large coin and is designed to be implanted in the skull, with ultra-thin wires going directly into the brain. Musk said the first two applications in people would be to restore vision and help people with little or no ability to operate their muscles quickly use digital devices.
He said he also envisions that in someone with a broken neck, signals from the brain could be bridged to Neuralink devices in the spinal cord.
“We are confident that there are no physical limitations to enabling full-body functionality,” said Musk, who recently took over Twitter and is the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX.
In experiments by other teams, implanted sensors have allowed paralyzed people to use brain signals to operate computers and move robotic arms. In a 2018 study in the journal PLOS ONE, three participants with paralysis below the neck affecting all of their extremities used an experimental brain-computer interface being tested by the BrainGate consortium. The interface records neural activity from a tiny sensor in the brain to navigate things like email and apps.
A recent study in the journal Nature, conducted by scientists at the Swiss research center NeuroRestore, identified a type of neuron activated by electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, allowing nine patients with chronic spinal cord injury to walk again.
Researchers have also been working on brain-machine interfaces to restore vision. Rao said a few companies have developed retinal implants, but Musk’s announcement suggested his team would use signals aimed directly at the brain’s visual cortex, an approach some academic groups are also following, “with limited success.”
Neuralink spokespersons did not immediately respond to an email sent to the press office. Dr. Jaimie Henderson, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and an adviser to Neuralink, said one way Neuralink is different from other devices is that it has the ability to reach deeper layers of the brain. But she added: “There are many different systems that have many different advantages.”
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
Copyright 2022 Associated Press. All rights reserved.