Elon Musk announced on Monday that the first human has received a brain implant through his Neuralink startup—marking a new step forward for the company and its goal to connect the human brain to computers.
Neuralink’s current trial, named the The PRIME Study, is aimed at providing individuals with quadriplegia the ability to control external devices with their thoughts. Experts in the field say that the technology, known as brain-computer interface (BCI), has a wide range of potential applications—particularly for those with disabilities.
“I think, at least in the immediate future, it's going to potentially revolutionize the way people with sensory or motor deficits might be able to interact with the environment and live more independently,” says Xing Chen, Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology at The University of Pittsburgh, whose work focuses on BCIs.
Controlling technology with your mind
BCIs have already demonstrated the ability to help individuals to control technology with their thoughts—allowing paralyzed patients to control a robotic arm or move a cursor. One recent trial even allowed a person to control a video game with their mind, says Anne Vanhoestenberghe, Professor of Active Implantable Medical Devices at Kings College, London.
“The person is trained and the system is trained and the two work together,” says Vanhoestenberghe. “These repeatable patterns are being associated with actions such as opening an app, clicking, maybe moving a cursor up and down.”
Musk has long maintained that Neuralink could be used to help individuals regulate their mood and hormones, a possibility well within the potential capabilities researchers envision for BCI technology, Chen says. It’s a breakthrough that could be of particular use for those with OCD or treatment-resistant depression, though more research is needed until it becomes a possibility. “Right now, for example, Neuralink doesn't go very deep into the brain,” says Chen, noting that another treatment used to treat depression, deep brain stimulation (DBS), targets an area of the brain deeper than Neuralink and other BCIs can currently reach. ”The targets of DBS are much deeper in the brain.”
Vanhoestenberghe says that researchers are also trying to understand if the technology can be used to address potential mental and cognitive processes linked with obesity.
Risks of implants
Receiving an implant comes with risks. Some are typical surgical risks—such as excessive bleeding or infection. Others are unique. For example, the brain simulation that BCIs entail can trigger epileptiform activity, a precursor for epilepsy, or epileptic attacks. (Neuralink did not immediately respond to TIME's request for comment on the potential risks of implantation.)
The procedure also carries potential long-term risks in ensuring the implant continues to function over time. “If all goes well, then the risk involves thinking about the device and technology and how stable they are in the long run,” says Vanhoestenberghe, noting the body might try to reject the implant. “Our bodies are very good at protecting ourselves from invasive objects.”
Because of the high—and largely still unknown—risks associated with the implant, the process will only likely be undergone by someone who might stand to gain from the treatment, like those with incurable medical conditions.
“Every person who participates in a clinical trial understands these risks, and they take these risks, always with the expectation that not it’s so much a benefit to themselves, but a benefit for future generations that suffer from the condition that they live with,” says Vanhoestenberghe.
Widespread adoption of brain implants?
Neuralink’s call for volunteers might sound like something out of a sci-fi novel: "The device is designed to interpret a person's neural activity, so they can operate a computer or smartphone by simply thinking about moving – no wires or physical movement are required," the company said.
But despite the futuristic premise, experts say that the technology is far from facing widespread adoption anytime soon. “This is a technology that really aims to help those who experienced the greatest degree of impairment. It's not meant to feed the general public or the average able-bodied person and that's a very important distinction,” says Chen.
That the technology might be used to allow companies to read minds or users to offload their memories is not happening any time soon—though the future is still wide open. “We’re not going to have a participant where the device is implanted into somebody and we can then read their mind—at least, not in my lifetime,” says Vanhoestenberghe.
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