First human received the Neuralink’s brain implant
Elon Musk very recently shared on X that the first human had just received a brain implant from Neuralink. He says: “[the first human] is recovering well. Initial results show promising neuron spike detection.” This is part of the First-in Human Clinical Trial as announced by the company last year. A “first hospital site” is mentioned but the location is not revealed. The condition of the very first patient is also not known. The recruitment is expected to focus on different types of severe paralysis. It can be a cervical spinal cord injury (tetraplegia, also called quadriplegia), but people with paralysis caused by ALS are also considered. This human trial a.k.a. the PRIME study is recruiting patients.
The Prime study: recruitment and protocol
The trial aims at evaluating the safety of the Neuralink’s implant and surgical robot and assess the initial functionality of their BCI/ BMI (Brain to Computer /Machine Interface) to enable people with paralysis to control external devices with their thoughts. Patients are invited to participate in the Patient Registry available on the company’s website. The study will take six years in total. The study brochure (link) indicates that “The Primary Study involves a combination of 9 at-home and in-person clinic visits and takes place over approximately 18 months. The long-term follow-up begins immediately after completion of the Primary Study and takes place over 5 years, with a total of 20 visits.” Regretfully, neither the website nor the brochure indicates the location of the “first hospital site.”
Musk: helping or “using” spinal cord injury people?
According to the company’s website, their mission is to “create a generalized brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow.” In other words, helping people suffering from neurological conditions such as spinal cord injury only constitutes a stepping stone to achieving human augmentation through AI (Artificial Intelligence).
Musk declared several times that the brain implant was going to enable people, living with paralysis to regain “full body functionality.” Alternatively, he said that Neuralink was going to “restore full body movement”. In that respect, many people living with spinal cord injury now believe or hope that Neuralink is going to change their lives or at least play a major role in reversing paralysis. Is that so?
AI Technology: potentials vs limitations
The idea behind Neuralink’s brain implant or other BMI or BCI’s projects, is that patients with a neurological shortcoming will be able to compensate that by using a direct communication between their brain and a computer or a machine. A chip is implanted in the skull and transmits the order directly to the computer or the machine/ device. This was demonstrated by images of a chimp playing a computer game simply by using his thoughts. It will offer tetraplegic people to control their smartphone directly with their mind or to control a robotic arm. Some of these functionalities are definitely welcome for people who’ve lost the control of their upper body and are looking forward to becoming more independent for simple day-to-day activities.
Picture: CNN. See article
In any case, we should not forget that therapies such as Neuralink’s implant are extremely invasive since they require brain surgery in order to implant the chip. Also, will it address the overwhelming issue of neuropathic pain in the spinal cord injury population? Is it likely to restore control and sensation of bladder or bowel? Last but not least, is it going to enable a real sexual function and experience?
Artificial intelligence, robotics and engineering might ultimately give back some functions to spinal cord injury patients as these technologies will obviously make huge progress along the way. However, we also need to be able to FEEL our body in order to feel human. Neuralink claim that their chip will enable sensory feedback. Is it ever going to restore true and full sensation to people suffering from paralysis?
BMI / BCI as part of a combination therapy to cure spinal cord injury?
However exciting AI / BMI /Robotics may be from a scientific viewpoint, currently they are merely compensatory therapies. Rather, they are unlikely to replace an actual biological repair / spinal cord regeneration. Obviously, these techniques will make huge progress over the coming years and their potentials will develop. A hybrid approach consisting of combining the technological and AI perspectives with the ultra-complex biological imperatives might produce some interesting results in that direction. In any case, for foundations aiming at reversing paralysis, such as endParalysis, allocating significant funds to AI and Robotics might just be an illusion. It is also superfluous since these areas of research ARE getting funded in any case (e.g. by the army and the industry). AI and robotics provide for impressive images. They inspire. Unfortunately, the reality and the day-to-day needs of people living with paralysis lie elsewhere.