Elon Musk’s Neuralink company has announced that it’s now accepting applications from subjects willing to have its experimental N1 computer interface implanted in their brain.
Neuralink’s first in-human study, called PRIME (Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface), is encouraging interest from those with quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). They should also be at least 22 years old and have a consistent and reliable caregiver.
Musk said in 2022 that he intended to have the device implanted in his own brain, but it seems unlikely that he will be among the trial’s first batch of participants.
Formed in 2016, Neuralink is developing a technology that connects the human brain with a computer interface for a system that enables those with neurological conditions to communicate with and control various devices. A person with paralysis, for example, could potentially use their phone merely by imagining their hand movements. In the long term, however, the ever-ambitious Musk suggests that the technology could equip humans with “superhuman cognition.”
Before attempting to reach those lofty heights, Neuralink says it wants to use the PRIME study to evaluate the safety of its N1 implant (N1) and its surgical robot, called R1. It will also assess the initial functionality of its brain-computer interface (BCI) for enabling those with paralysis to control external devices with their thoughts.
“During the study, the R1 robot will be used to surgically place the N1 implant’s ultra-fine and flexible threads in a region of the brain that controls movement intention,” Neuralink explained in a post on its website. “Once in place, the N1 implant is cosmetically invisible and is intended to record and transmit brain signals wirelessly to an app that decodes movement intention.”
It added that the initial goal of its BCI is to “grant people the ability to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone.”
The PRIME study is being carried out under the investigational device exemption (IDE) awarded by the FDA in May and, according to Neuralink, represents a significant step in its bid to develop a generalized brain interface to bring autonomy to those with unmet medical needs.
Neuralink last year shared a video of a monkey with the BCI playing Pong merely by thinking about it. It was also able to move a mouse cursor using the same method. But the company has faced criticism for using animals in its research despite its insistence that it always treats them with care. Earlier this month, Musk responded to claims that 15 out of 23 monkeys implanted with the device have since died, saying: “No monkey has died as a result of a Neuralink implant,” adding that with its early animal trials it used terminally ill monkeys to minimize the risk to healthy ones.
Other companies have already developed similar technology to Neuralink’s. BrainGate, for example, has enabled a man with paralysis to communicate his thoughts by converting his imagined handwriting into text.
It’s still early days for Neuralink, but it’s hoped that its own technology could one day lead to real-world benefits for people with paralysis, or even fulfill Musk’s grand hopes of achieving something far greater.