Neuralink shows video of chess player patient involving brain implant

Elon Musk's Neuralink startup broadcast a live video on Wednesday showing a patient using the company's brain implant to move a mouse and play chess on a computer.

Noland Arbaugh, 29, is the first human patient to be implanted with the Neuralink device. The company is developing a brain-computer interface, or BCI, that aims to help severely paralyzed patients control external technologies using only neural signals. Neuralink's first product is called Telepathy, Musk said in a post on his X social media site in January.

In Wednesday's video, which aired on X, Arbaugh said he became a quadriplegic after suffering a diving accident about eight years ago. He said the surgery to get the Neuralink implant, which requires patients to remove a portion of their skull to insert electrodes into brain tissue, was “super easy.” He was released from the hospital the next day, he said.

“It's not perfect, I would say we've run into some issues,” Arbaugh said. “I don't want people to think this is the end of the journey, there is still a lot of work to do, but it has already changed my life.”

A BCI is a system that deciphers brain signals and translates them into commands for external technologies. If the system works properly, patients with serious degenerative diseases like ALS could eventually text or scroll through social media with their minds.

Several companies such as Paradromics, Synchron, Blackrock Neurotech, and Precision Neuroscience have developed BCI systems with these capabilities, and many of them have also implanted devices in human patients. Neuralink is particularly well-known in the field due to the high profile of Musk, who is also the CEO of tesla and SpaceX.

In many ways, the capabilities Neuralink demonstrated in its video on Wednesday are not new. Dr. Nader Pouratian, chairman of the Department of Neurological Surgery at UT Southwestern Medical Center, said researchers have been developing and studying BCI technology for years.

“There are things we've been able to do for decades, like controlling a cursor in two dimensions, which is actually, for those of us in the field, extremely easy to do as soon as you can get any brain signal.” “he told CNBC in an interview earlier this month.

He said there is a lot of excitement around BCIs, but admitted there are a number of practical challenges to solve, such as how to interpret and analyze brain signals and make them useful. Pouratian said he believes transparency from both academia and the broader BCI industry about progress will be key to progress.

Neuralink began recruiting patients for its first-in-human clinical trial in the fall after receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conduct the study in May 2023, according to a blog post. In January, Musk said the company implanted its device in a human for the first time and that the patient, now revealed to be Arbaugh, was “recovering well,” according to a post on X.

Aside from Musk's posts, Neuralink has shared very few details about the scope or nature of its test. As of Wednesday, the trial is not listed on the website, which is where most medical device companies share information about their research to help inform the public and other health professionals about their ambitions.

It is not clear how many patients are participating in the Neuralink trial or what the trial is trying to prove. The company will have to go through several rounds of safety and effectiveness testing before it can get the final seal of approval from the FDA and go to market.

Neuralink did not respond to CNBC's request for comment.

There is reason to be hopeful about Neuralink's technology, said Dr. Marco Baptista, chief scientific officer of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, which provides resources to people who have been paralyzed. He told CNBC in early March that BCI technology could have a significant impact on patients, but like all emerging devices, Neuralink's system should be viewed with skepticism.

He said he would like to see more traditional scientific reports from Neuralink to learn more about its technology, for example. Neuralink is listed as an author in a 2019 white paper, according to PubMed.

“I'm hopeful that this information will start to emerge through these mechanisms that are needed in science, and that is through peer-reviewed publications,” Baptista said. “That hasn't happened yet. Other companies are doing it.”

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