Elon Musk’s brain-machine interface venture, Neuralink, has been given the green light by the FDA to test its groundbreaking brain chip implants in paralyzed human volunteers. This pivotal development signals a major stride towards Neuralink’s mission of creating a universal brain interface to restore autonomy to individuals with unmet medical needs.
Dubbed “The PRIME Study,” this clinical trial is conducted under an investigational device exemption (IDE) granted by the FDA in May 2023. The primary objective of Neuralink’s Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) is to empower individuals to control a computer cursor or keyboard solely through their thoughts.
To achieve this objective, Neuralink will employ tiny flexible threads embedded with electrodes, which will be surgically implanted in the brain region responsible for movement control. During the study, a specialized R1 Robot will facilitate the precise placement of the N1 Implant in the brain’s movement intention center.
Participants in the trial will utilize the N1 Implant alongside the N1 User App to operate a computer and provide valuable feedback on the system. Once implanted, Neuralink’s device promises to decipher intended hand and finger movements, translating them into commands for external devices.
The N1 Implant, with its 1,024 hair-thin electrodes and 8mm diameter, records neural activity at unprecedented precision. However, this invasive approach has risks, as alternative methods, like surface brain sensors, have also shown success in restoring mobility to paralyzed patients, as exemplified by Keith Thomas.
If proven safe and effective, Neuralink’s brain chips could offer newfound independence to individuals afflicted by paralysis due to spinal cord injuries or conditions such as ALS. Yet, this technology inevitably raises profound ethical concerns about the ability to read people’s thoughts literally.
Neuralink’s history is marked by controversy, particularly concerning animal testing, with allegations of botched experiments resulting in over 1,500 animal deaths. Volunteers for the clinical trial will be compensated for their study-related expenses over the six-year duration of “The PRIME Study.”
While the trial is initially set to commence at an undisclosed hospital site, Neuralink’s ambitious vision has attracted substantial funding, totaling $280 million. Musk envisions a future where AI-driven thought-reading chips become commonplace, enhancing human capabilities.
Nevertheless, the road ahead for Neuralink is strewn with regulatory and ethical hurdles. While such advances hold immense promise for patients with limited mobility, the boundary between medical treatment and human enhancement may blur, leaving society to grapple with complex questions about the intersection of technology and humanity.