Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s brain-chip startup Neuralink said on Tuesday it has received approval from an independent review board to begin recruitment for the first human trial of its brain implant for paralysis patients. The company is developing minimally invasive brain chips that can read electrical brain signals and transmit them to external devices such as computers or robotic arms.
The goal is to allow people with paralysis or ALS to control external technology using only their thoughts and, in the longer term, to restore vision, mobility, and speech for people who are blind or have limited ability to speak, according to a blog post by Neuralink. However, the neural implant is still years away from commercial use, as it will need to be tested for safety and functionality.
Neuralink should have disclosed how many participants will be enrolled in the trial, which is expected to take about six years to complete. The trial will assess whether the device can read and send movement intentions to an external device such as a cursor or keyboard. It will also look at the speed and accuracy of the data transmission and whether the system can recognize different intention signals from the same person.
The blog post said the company plans to use a surgical robot to place the chip inside the brain, in the area responsible for controlling movement intentions. The disk-shaped implant registers nerve activity, then relays the information through a standard Bluetooth wireless signal to a computer or digital device such as a smartphone, Musk said at a previous presentation. The company said a portable battery can power the implant and charge wirelessly.
At a previous presentation, the company showed several monkeys playing simple video games or moving a computer cursor on a screen with their minds. It has also been shown in pigs. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that advocates for ending animal testing, has called on the company to release details of tests it conducted on monkeys. The group says the experiments resulted in internal bleeding, paralysis, chronic infections, seizures, declining psychological health, and death in some animals.
Several other companies are developing brain-machine interfaces, or BMIs, designed to help people with disabilities by reading and interpreting signals from the nervous system and sending them out as commands to external devices. Some of these systems can enable a person with quadriplegia to control a robotic arm or even eat chocolate.
The FDA has approved two BMIs for clinical trials, but it will be a decade or more before those technologies reach the market. US lawmakers have also urged the FDA to investigate the makeup of a panel overseeing the animal tests at Neuralink and possible financial conflicts of interest between its members and the company.