Elon Musk’s Neuralink responds to ‘Brain-Implant’ malfunction, implications for FDA approval and future trials

Neuralink Corp., the brain technology company founded by Elon Musk, encountered a significant obstacle when its first human implant experienced mechanical problems. Following the surgery in January, the device implanted in patient Noland Arbaugh began to show signs of malfunction, with some of the electrode-studded threads retracting from the brain tissue, the company said in a recent blog post.

The malfunction compromised the device’s functionality, requiring Neuralink to implement a series of software fixes to correct the problem. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the incident.

Neuralink mentioned that these software adjustments helped improve the device’s performance, ultimately leading to “a rapid and sustained improvement that has now superseded Noland’s initial performance.”

Neuralink is currently focusing on enhancing text entry and cursor control for its brain-computer interface, with long-term plans to control physical devices such as robotic arms and wheelchairs. This recent malfunction, however, has raised concerns within the brain-implant community.

Experts suggest that the complications could be related to Neuralink’s unique design, where the electrode-studded threads connect to a device positioned within the skull bone rather than on the surface of the brain tissue. Eric Leuthardt, a neurosurgeon at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis Louis, noted that even minor head movements could cause significant displacement within the brain. He explained that brain implants traditionally rest on the top of the brain tissue, allowing them to move more fluidly with the brain’s natural movements.

Matt Angle, CEO of brain-implant competitor Paradromics Inc., pointed out that retraction of the threads is unusual for brain implants, suggesting that this design approach may require further refinement. Neuralink’s pre-clinical testing was conducted on animals with smaller brains, which could have influenced the observed stability, Leuthardt added.

The timing of this malfunction could impact Neuralink’s plans for broader human trials, potentially causing delays in gaining FDA approval. Despite these setbacks, the company remains committed to advancing its technology and expanding its research into brain-computer interfaces for a wider range of applications.

(With input from Bloomberg)

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Published: 09 May 2024, 06:04 PM IST