That of Neuralink has possibly been the least known side of the Annus horribilis business of its owner, Elon Musk. The company hasn’t fared well since it began preparations for its first human trials about a year ago, and yet its progress, though slow, hasn’t stopped.
What exactly is Neuralink? Neuralink is a company dedicated to the manufacture of brain implants for use as a digital interface. These implants should help people with certain mobility problems to interact with their environment.
The company, founded by South African tycoon Elon Musk, has been dedicated to this ambitious project for more than half a decade. His progress so far has been discreet and incremental, but everything seems to indicate that he is moving towards the great leap: human experimentation.
A year of scandals. Or at least that seemed the plan. Neuralink began 2022 with a job offer: the company was looking for a director of clinical trials, but the outlook soon turned dark with a complaint from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. This complaint seems to be on its way to materializing in a formal investigation by the US federal government.
While it is true that Neuralink admitted that some of the animals on which it had experimented had suffered damage, the company argued that none was due to negligence or abuse, and that the protocols followed not only complied with the legal minimums required but also with stricter recommendations. Since then the company has been placing special emphasis on the animal welfare of the subjects with which it investigates.
To this internal scandal can be added those that its owner, Elon Musk, has been leading throughout the year. Particularly due to the purchase of the social network Twitter, whose ramifications have affected other companies. Perhaps Neuralink, due to its lesser role on a day-to-day basis, has been able to keep a certain distance from the information hubbub.
N1 and R1. Despite this, the company seems to go ahead with its plans. The company organized a recruiting event at the end of November, which also served as an update on their progress. The event came to confirm the trend that had already been seen before: incremental and non-revolutionary innovations in a cutting-edge field such as neural implants.
N1 is the name that your first implant has received. It is a small circular device that adapts to the same bone of the skull from which it is connected, through more than fifty needles, to the brain. From there it serves as an interface for data input and output.
The implant was not the only protagonist. The company also presented R1, the robot that will be in charge of “coupling” the device to the brain. The company intends that this implant insertion process be carried out in a simple operation of a quarter of an hour of duration thanks to this “digital surgeon”.
Participants are sought for an experiment in neuroscience. So Neuralink seems poised to continue with its plans to begin clinical trials in humans. In the middle of December Neuralink advertisement creating a patient registry. The company seeks Americans ages 18 and older with quadriplegia, paraplegia, vision loss, deafness, or aphasia.
Too ambitious? If SpaceX’s motto has been to innovate through trial and error, it seems Neuralink has taken a more cautious path. It is not surprising considering the object of his investigation. The advances presented so far are few but not without merit in a difficult context.
Despite this, 2023 seems to be a difficult year. We will have to see the company’s ability to justify the losses in animal life suffered and thus be able to withstand the probable federal investigation that it could face in the coming months.
Organizing human clinical trials is also not something to be taken lightly. It remains to be seen if the damage suffered in animal models will imply a reduced convening power for participants. The reward is important as, if successful, it could help improve the quality of life for many people with all kinds of disabilities. The year looks interesting.
Image | Neuralink