Musk’s company aims to test the brain implant in people soon

Tech billionaire Elon Musk said his company Neuralink is asking for permission to test his brain implant in people soon.

In a live-streamed “show and tell” presentation Wednesday night, Musk said his team is asking US regulators to allow them to test the device. He said he thinks the company should be able to insert the implant into a human brain as part of a clinical trial in about six months, though that timeline is far from certain.

Musk’s Neuralink is one of many groups working to connect 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 ’90s. And more recently we’ve seen a lot of advances, especially in the area of ​​brain-computer communication interfaces.”

Rao, who watched Musk’s presentation online, said he doesn’t think Neuralink has the edge in brain-computer interface results. “But… they’re quite ahead in terms of the actual hardware in the devices,” he said.

The Neuralink device is roughly 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 will restore vision and help people with little or no ability to work muscles quickly to use digital devices.

He said he also predicts that in someone with a broken neck, signals from the brain could be connected 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 limbs used an experimental brain-computer interface 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, led by scientists from 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 injuries to walk again.

Researchers have also worked on brain and machine interfaces to restore vision. Rao said some companies have been developing retinal implants, but Musk’s announcement suggested his team will use signals directed to the brain’s visual cortex, an approach some academic groups are also pursuing, “with limited success.”

Neuralink spokespersons did not immediately respond to an email to the press office. Dr. Jaimie Henderson, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University and a consultant 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 a lot of different systems that have a lot of different benefits.”

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Science and Educational Media Group of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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