Billionaire Elon Musk has announced that his company Neuralink is seeking approval to soon test his brain implant in people.
In a graphic presentation broadcast live Wednesday night, Musk said his team is in the process of applying to US regulatory agencies to allow them to test the device. He added that he believes his company should be able to place the implant in a human brain as part of its clinical trials in about six months, although there is nothing certain about the dates.
Neuralink is one of several groups working on linking brains with computers, with the goal of helping treat brain disorders, recover from brain injury, and other applications.
The field of study 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, particularly in the area of brain-computer interface communication.”
Rao, who watched Musk’s presentation online, said he doesn’t think Neuralink is ahead of its competitors when it comes to advances in brain-computer interfaces. “But they are quite advanced in terms of the hardware in the devices,” he stated.
The Neuralink device is about the size of a large coin and is designed to be implanted in the skull, with ultra-thin wires connecting directly to the brain. Musk noted that the first two applications in humans would be to restore sight and help people with little or no ability to operate their muscles quickly use digital devices.
He said he also envisions that in cases of people with a broken neck, brain signals can be linked through Neuralink devices in the spinal cord.
“We are confident that there are no physical limitations to enable full-body functionality,” said Musk, who recently took ownership of Twitter and is CEO of Tesla and SpaceX.
In experiments by other teams, implanted sensors have allowed paralyzed people to use neural signals to operate computers and move robotic arms. In a study published in the journal PLOS ONE in 2018, three participants with paralysis from the neck down affecting all their extremities used an experimental brain-computer interface from the BrainGate consortium. The interface records neural activity captured with a small sensor in the brain to be able to use emails and apps.