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Neuralink's Brain-Implant Updates Prompt Skepticism and Ethical Concerns

Neuralink's latest brain-computer interface advancements raise concerns over lack of approval, ethics, and patient risks.

By DinushanPublished about a year ago 3 min read

Elon Musk's health tech company Neuralink has shared updates on its brain-implant technology during a "show and tell" recruitment event. Musk announced that he plans to get one of the implants himself, and the company's applications aim to restore vision, even for people who were born blind, and restore "full body functionality" for people with severed spinal cords.

Neuralink is striving to develop brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that connect the human brain to computers that can decipher neural signals. The company's presentation Wednesday echoed Musk's ambitious vision, claiming that "as miraculous as it may sound, we're confident that it is possible to restore full body functionality to someone who has a severed spinal cord."

Musk showed footage of a monkey with a computer chip in its skull playing "telepathic video games," which Neuralink first debuted over a year ago. The billionaire said at the time that he wants to implant Neuralink chips into quadriplegics who have brain or spinal injuries so that they can "control a computer mouse, or their phone, or really any device just by thinking."

However, since none of Neuralink's devices have been tested on humans or approved by the FDA, Wednesday's announcements warrant skepticism, according to Xing Chen, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

"Neuralink is a company [that] doesn't have to answer to shareholders," she told CNBC. "I don't know how much oversight is involved, but I think it's very important for the public to always keep in mind that before anything has been approved by the FDA, or any governmental regulatory body, all claims need to be very, very skeptically examined."

Neuralink has come under fire for its alleged treatment of monkeys, and the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine called on Musk to release details about experiments on monkeys that had resulted in internal bleeding, paralysis, chronic infections, seizures, declining psychological health, and death.

Neuralink's flashy presentations are unusual for companies in the medical devices space, said Anna Wexler, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. She said it's risky to encourage people who have serious disabilities to get their hopes up, especially if they could possibly incur injuries as the technology is implanted during surgery.

Wexler encouraged people to put on their "skeptic hat" about Neuralink's big claims.

"From an ethical perspective, I think that hype is very concerning," she said. "Space or Twitter, that's one thing, but when you come into the medical context, the stakes are higher."

Chen, who specializes in BCIs, said Neuralink's implants would require subjects to undergo a very invasive procedure. Doctors would need to create a hole in the skull to insert the device into the brain tissue.

Even so, she thinks some people would be willing to take the risk.

"There's quite a few disorders, such as epilepsy, Parkinson's and obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which people have received brain implants and the disorders have been treated quite successfully, allowing them to have an improved quality of life," Chen said. "So I do feel that there is a precedent for doing this."

Wexler said she believes the decision would ultimately come down to an individual patient's personal risk-benefit calculation.

Neuralink is not the only company trying to innovate using BCIs, and many have made big strides in recent years. Blackrock Neurotech is on track to bring a BCI system to market next year, which would make it the first commercially available BCI in history. Synchron received FDA approval in 2023 to begin a clinical trial for a permanently implanted BCI, and Paradromics

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    DinushanWritten by Dinushan

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