Neuralink's first brain implant is working. Elon Musk has no transparency


Some Neuralink rivals, like Precision Neuroscience, are developing implants that sit over the brain, or in Synchron's case, a stent-like device that is inserted into a blood vessel and sits against the brain. These devices are intended to allow paralyzed people to communicate using digital devices by reading electrical patterns generated from groups of neurons.

Neuralink isn't exactly operating in secrecy — it has performed livestream demonstrations of its technology for years and published a white paper in 2019 — but some researchers say the company hasn't been the most transparent about its research either. . (Neuralink did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Given reports, including WIRED, that Neuralink's brain implants may cause problems in monkeys, New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan says the company should be more candid about its research. “I think it's up to you to say 'our science is good' and it needs to be validated not just by people who have a stake in the company, but also by peers,” he says. “The moral duty here is to protect the subject.”

To be clear, Neuralink is not legally obligated to disclose details about its human and animal testing.

The FDA requires all phases of drug trials to be listed on, a government database that includes information such as the number of participants enrolled in the study, the location of the trial site, and the outcomes the trial will evaluate. But medical devices whose development is in the early stages are not required to register on the site for feasibility studies. These studies may include only a few subjects.

Most of what is known about Neuralink's trial comes from a brochure the company made available last fall. It says people are eligible for the study if they suffer from quadriplegia caused by a spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) disease and are at least 22 years old. The initial study involves multiple clinic visits over 18 months and long-term follow-up continuing for up to five years. According to the brochure, the study will take about six years to complete.

But Caplan and others think the public deserves more information about the study and the participant's current status.

“People care a lot about their brains. It's the most personal thing to us,” says Justin Sanchez, a technical fellow at Battelle, a nonprofit research organization in Ohio that has conducted human BCI research. “When we start talking about building medical devices for the brain, there needs to be transparency.”

Being more open about their research could also curb misinformation about what Neuralink's technology is actually capable of doing. Sanchez says that BCIs are not yet mind-reading devices in the way people think. Subjects undergo a training period in which they are taught to think about a desired action, such as moving a cursor. The implant captures brain signals that encode this intention. Over time, BCI software learns what the signals associated with this intent look like and translates them into a command that carries out the user's intent.

“There's a big difference between what's being done in a very small subset of neurons today to understand complex thoughts and more sophisticated cognitive types of things,” Sanchez says. He says the latter would require much more sophisticated neurotechnology — possibly multiple implants in different parts of the brain that record from many, many neurons. Neuralink's device is implanted in the area of ​​the brain that controls movement intention.

“People have a fear of brain manipulation,” Caplan says. In a 2022 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, a majority of American respondents said that widespread use of brain chips to improve cognitive function would be a bad idea. “Launching this completely in the dark is not the way to engage the public.”