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What to know about Elon Musk's Neuralink, which put an implant into a human brain

Neuralink has conducted its first surgical test of a brain implant, Elon Musk says. An example of the device, whose size has been compared to a coin and which has "threads" that connect to the brain, is seen here in a photo from the company's brochure.
Neuralink/Screenshot by NPR
Neuralink has conducted its first surgical test of a brain implant, Elon Musk says. An example of the device, whose size has been compared to a coin and which has "threads" that connect to the brain, is seen here in a photo from the company's brochure.

Elon Musk says his ambitious plan to let humans wirelessly connect their brains with phones and other devices has taken a new step, announcing that the first human has received a brain implant from his Neuralink company.

The person, who wasn't identified, "is recovering well," Musk said via X, formerly known as Twitter. "Initial results show promising neuron spike detection," he added, referring to the cellular activity between our brains and our nervous systems.

The news comes months after Neuralink began recruiting potential human test subjects for its clinical trial. The company got Food and Drug Administration approval for the trial last May, saying it wanted to enlist people ages 22 and above who are living with quadriplegia due to a spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the disease that robs people of the ability to control their bodies.

The trial utilizes a robot during surgery

Neuralink's clinical trial is called PRIME — for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface. As the name implies, the process involves using a robot to surgically insert the wires of the company's implant into a part of the brain related to movement.

"The device is designed to interpret a person's neural activity, so they can operate a computer or smartphone by simply intending to move – no wires or physical movement are required," Neuralink said as it called for volunteers.

Neuralink says its implant procedure employs custom-made microscopic needles. As the company said last October on X, "The tip is only 10 to 12 microns in width—only slightly larger than the diameter of a red blood cell. The small size allows threads to be inserted with minimal damage to the cortex."

The goal of the PRIME trial, the company said in a promotional video, is to place "a small cosmetically invisible implant in a part of your brain that plans movement."

What about the brain implant?

The implant includes "1024 electrodes distributed across 64 threads," according to Neuralink. The implant is the key hardware component of the trial; the other focus points are the surgical robot and the Neuralink user app that connects wirelessly to a computer or other device.

"The N1 Implant is powered by a small battery charged wirelessly from the outside via a compact, inductive charger that enables easy use from anywhere," the company says on its website.

As he announced the human implant surgery, Musk said his company's implant product would be called Telepathy.

"Enables control of your phone or computer, and through them almost any device, just by thinking," he tweeted Monday evening.

"Initial users will be those who have lost the use of their limbs," he said. "Imagine if Stephen Hawking could communicate faster than a speed typist or auctioneer. That is the goal."

Neuralink says it aims "to redefine the boundaries of human capability," telling prospective participants in the PRIME trial that they "could significantly shape the future of interaction and independence, not just for you but for countless others."

Neuralink has been controversial

Neuralink has previously faced controversy due to accusations about how it conducts its research and how Musk portrays that work. Reports emerged in 2022 and 2023 alleging that the company's practices had debilitating effects on monkeys and other animals used in testing, including an allegation that as many as 12 monkeys were euthanized as part of its research.

In response to such allegations, Musk said last September, "No monkey has died as a result of a Neuralink implant," adding that in early tests, "to minimize risk to healthy monkeys, we chose terminal moneys (close to death already)."

Members of Congress have asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to look into how Musk portrayed Neuralink's use of animals in testing its implants — and specifically, whether he might have overstated the implants' marketability.

The lawmakers' pushback includes a request last May from Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who asked the U.S. Agriculture Department to investigate potential conflicts of interest among people on the panel overseeing animal testing at Neuralink.

People are both excited and dubious about implants

Research in computers and neurology has been converging for decades, including the burgeoning field of decoding the brain's electrical activity around words, impulses and images. Increasingly, that work has included an implantable brain-computer interface, or BCI.

Much of the ongoing research has sought to bring people affected by paralysis and blindness new ways of interacting with the world. But implants have also long been seen as having the potential to "enhance" people who aren't affected by such serious conditions.

Musk has previously spoken about the idea of a "neural lace" that could add a symbiotic digital layer to the human brain and merge artificial intelligence with the brain. And while the current Neuralink trial would seem to stop well short of those lofty goals, speculation about his remarks crystalized around Neuralink in 2017, when he confirmed his ties to the then-new company.

"Imagine the joy of connecting with your loved ones, browsing the web or even playing games using only your thoughts," Neuralink said in its video, showing images of a smartphone seemingly connected to a person's mind.

Brain implant research has raised many questions, including whether (and where) humanity should draw the line in our integration with technology.

As the rush to embrace futuristic devices has built steam, people like Tristan Harris, a former Google employee who founded the Center for Humane Technology, have urged innovators to first analyze our present, including the damaging and addictive effects our phones can have on us.

"What got us into the present situation where our attention spans are 40 seconds on any computer screen?" Harris told NPR in 2019. "What got us there wasn't, 'Let's make our attention spans short.' What got us there was, 'Let's give ourselves superpowers.' And we didn't know ourselves well enough that when we gave ourselves superpowers, we debased our way of making attention."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.