Elon Musk’s brain implant startup Neuralink has attracted lots of criticism and skepticism but it also seems to have generated a lot of optimism for the thousands of potential patients interested in human trials.
The company earlier this year got FDA approval to begin human trials and began recruiting shortly thereafter. According to a lengthy Bloomberg profile on Neuralink, the ambitions for human brain implants start slow with 11 surgeries planned for next year, but they expand to more than 22,000 a year by 2030.
Neuralink is reportedly looking for volunteers under 40 years old and with paralysis in their limbs.
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The idea is the company’s implant will be able to read signals from the brain and convert them into computer commands. Eventually, especially when coupled with a spinal implant that Neuralink is also developing, the brain implant could help restore vision, hearing and movement for patients who have lost those abilities.
For the first human trials, the implantation will involve removing portions of patients’ skulls before having a Neuralink-designed surgical robot insert thin electrodes into the brain. After the procedure, the patient will be left with a small implant that sits flush with their scalp. The Neuralink has a fairly short battery life but can be wirelessly recharged in a few hours using a special baseball hat designed by the team.
Neuralink has spent years developing its implant and the company has even brought some of the manufacturing in-house. Bloomberg said it turned a former ax throwing bar into a small production facility, complete with a synthetic brain fluid tank for testing and simulating real-world conditions for the implants.
Neuralink has plenty of critics who have accused the company of animal cruelty or overhyping what the implant can do. And Neuralink employees have acknowledged that the trial and error in other Musk ventures – like SpaceX’s early rockets exploding – can’t happen at Neuralink.
“We can’t blow up the first three,” Shivon Zilis, Neuralink’s director of special projects, told the publication. “That’s not an option here.”