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Researchers react to first Neuralink device implanted into human brain

Brown scientific community expresses excitement, concern over company’s advancements

In January, Elon Musk announced via X that his company, Neuralink, successfully implanted its brain-user interface device into a human subject for the first time. 

The company’s intracortical brain-computer interface was developed for those diagnosed with paralysis. The interface aims to allow patients to control devices like computers or phones with their brains, helping restore communication and mobility for disabled individuals. But, the question of how Neuralink differs from other BCIs is still being investigated — including by researchers at Brown. 

“To my knowledge, nothing that Neuralink is doing is really radical,” Christopher Moore, a professor of neuroscience and the associate director of the Carney Institute for Brain Science, said in an interview with The Herald. He highlighted, though, that the company does “have technologies that they're advancing.” 

The technology works by implanting a small chip (which the company calls N1), and electrode arrays of more than 1,000 flexible conductors into the cerebral cortex. The chip records and processes electrical activity in the brain, which is then transmitted to an external device like  a computer or a phone. The chip analyzes the data to achieve the patient's goal — such as clicking something on the computer screen — based on learned patterns in the subject's brain activity. 


“The more ways we have to interface with the brain at more precise locations, the higher bandwidth we have for information that can go in and out, and the more carefully we can adjust circuits to get the benefits we want,” explained Wael Asaad, a professor of neurosurgery and neuroscience at the Warren Alpert Medical School. 

“Right now when we do deep brain stimulation — for example, (to treat) Parkinson's disease —  it's a very coarse tool,” Asaad said. He added that new BCIs allow for more precise signal detection.

Neuralink’s device contrasts with earlier BCIs models in that it is able to insert electrode threads into very targeted locations in the brain.

While scientists have frequently been able to listen to the many individual neurons of animals all at once, their ability to do this in humans has been limited. 

“For the most part, when we work with humans, we record from what are called local field potentials — which are larger scale recordings — and we're not actually listening to individual neurons,” Asaad said. “What (Neuralink) has is an interface that can actually record and listen to individual neurons wirelessly,” which is a substantial advancement, he said. 

Neuralink received FDA approval for human trials in May 2023, but, so far, there has been little information shared on the device or the progress of the trials. The company has not registered on the National Institute of Health’s clinical trial database and nothing has been published other than a two-page pamphlet aimed at recruiting participants. 

“It's a bit of an unusual way to do science,” Asaad said. 

“On paper, that technology looks really neat and exciting, but the concern that a lot of people have is with the company,” Asaad said.

In 2022, Neuralink was investigated for animal cruelty by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though the agency ultimately found no breaches. The company was most recently investigated for possible violations in the transportation of hazardous materials.

“It would be terrific if they were open to sharing (more of) their data, as it would be beneficial to furthering other scientific research,” Ewina Pun, a doctoral candidate in the BrainGate team at Brown University, wrote in an email to The Herald. “While I believe recruiting more patients is part of Neuralink’s plan, exactly how they will scale up in the future remains unclear.”


Neuralink did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite this uncertainty, the resources believe there is great potential for this kind of technology. 

“Higher resolution brain interfaces that are fully wireless and allow two-way communication with the brain are going to have a lot of potential uses,” Asaad said. “We're learning very quickly that diseases like OCD and depression have neural circuit substrates that we can perturb, and we can do that with stimulation” at finer scales with new technology, he added. 

“It is genuinely impressive that Neuralink went from initial design to the first human implant in just a couple years,” Pun wrote. “However, since the device is intended for chronic (implantation), it is important to keep in mind the long-term safety and efficacy” of the technology.

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The two biggest risks are bleeding and infection, Asaad explained.

“That's always a risk with any surgery,” Asaad said. “When you're implanting something that's a foreign body and your immune system can't necessarily fight off any bacteria, it's prone to infection. But those are pretty standard risks for the field.”

“It's not ethical to put sabers, swords (or) giant toothpicks slicing into someone's brain unless you can do stuff that really … benefits the individual,” Moore said. “But what’s your standard of enough benefit to make it worth an invasive surgery?”

“Is it powerful? Yes. Is it interesting? Yes. Is it advancing science? Yes,” Moore added. “Could there possibly be other, better approaches? I think so.”

Liliana Cunha

Liliana Cunha is a staff writer covering Science and Research. She is a sophomore from Pennsylvania concentrating in Cognitive Neuroscience. In her free time, she loves to play music and learn new instruments.

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