Wiring the Future: Neuralink's Journey into neuroscience 

In January 2024, Elon Musk's neurotechnology company, Neuralink, conducted their first human trial. The first-ever patient was a 29-year-old man named Noland Arbaugh, who had been paralyzed. The cybernetic implant has significantly improved his life and is set to benefit many more. But what are the societal implications? Is it right to alter the human mind for the sake of advancement? And when will the product become mainstream?

News Shopper: Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Neuralink Corp is an American company that specialises in neurotechnology, and recently, they have been making waves in the tech and biology scene. The cause of this? The incredible and innovative advancements that the company has made. Neuralink was launched in 2016 and was founded by Elon Musk, the popular CEO of companies such as SpaceX and Tesla, along with a group of seven engineers and scientists.

The main and arguably noble goal of the company is to revolutionise the use of brain-computer interfaces, with the first goal of helping and assisting those with medical needs, such as paralysis, enabling them to use a computer or mobile device using only brain activity alone. The extremely fortunate first patient was Noland Arbaugh, who is paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Elon Musk made this statement on his X (formerly Twitter) account:

The first human received an implant from Neuralink yesterday and is recovering well. Initial results show promising neuron spike detection

Noland is now able to use a computer and his phone, despite having no motor control over his hands, and has spent a significant amount of time playing online chess and a game called Civilization VI.

Applications of the device

This significant step is still in testing, and while Noland is using the chip for basic tasks, the possible applications of the product are limitless.

One such possible application is the integration with limb replacements for amputees. Elon told investors at Tesla that he plans for Neuralink to be combined with electronic prosthetics to allow the user to directly control the limb as if it were their original biological one, essentially creating a real-life cyborg. This type of advancement could be momentous in the lives of so many people and can allow many individuals to return to a more conventional life after losing limbs.

But how did the company get to the point of human testing? Surely it must have been a long and tiresome process to perfect the technology?

Animal Testing

The company conducted many tests on animals in their labs, and while this may sound concerning concerning regarding the safety and treatment of animals, Tesla made sure to gain approval from the IACUC (The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee), a company that manages and ensures the treatment of animals used in labs and scientific environments before they began live testing and had to submit research to them during the process of testing.

There were multiple tests on different animals who were all treated well and kept safe. One such example was a pig named “Gertrude” who had a Neuralink device implanted in the sensory area of her brain. This meant that whenever the handler touched her snout, there was a spike in brain activity, further adding to the lengthy and successful research the team conducted. Further tests were conducted on “Pager.”

News Shopper:

Pager: You might be thinking of the wrong type of “pager” when I say that, but in reality, it is the name of a monkey that Neuralink tested on in its later stages of development. A video shows Pager playing a game that uses a joystick to move a dot onto a coloured square, rewarding him with a sip of banana smoothie.

After recording the brain activity associated with the movements, the team unplugged the controller and allowed Pager to fully use his mind to play pong and the previous game. This was very late into the testing process and was right before the first human patient was selected. And while most people are excited about what the future will bring, such as myself, some people are sceptical of the new tech and the possible issues it could cause if it were to become readily available to the public.

The Ethical/Scientific Divide

The way Neuralink has been reporting scientific information has been a sore topic in the scientific community. Some criticised Elon for not registering its clinical trial with “ClinicalTrials.gov,” which is typical practice. Additionally, others in the community criticised Elon for communicating information via “casual social media updates.”

Rafael Yuste, an expert in the field of neurobiology, stated that Neuralink was only covered so widely because “a company associated with Elon Musk” made the product. He also mentioned the years of research in the same field by other companies that have been widely ignored by the wider public due to a lack of coverage.

Another overarching issue that is being spoken about is the ethical issues surrounding privacy and access to freedom of thought, as the company would have access to a large portion of your brain activity. Although it would be near impossible to extract “data” from the brain that hasn't been calibrated for, so this may not be an issue at all. Another potential issue to think about is the concept of a portion of society having better senses and abilities compared to the rest if the product were to ever go mainstream, as this would just create another societal divide.

It could be seen as a large potential issue, but again, this is unlikely as Neuralink's main goal is to help those with limited senses or motor functions, and not the other way around. Also, the concept of a disabled person being “broken” and needing to be “fixed” may be seen as controversial, as many people with disabilities are confident and comfortable with themselves as they are and do not wish to be changed, but this is down to personal choice, of course.

Overall, the future seems bright for neurobiology, and so many people can gain help and a better quality of life due to its innovations. Hopefully, the coverage of Neuralink will prop up other scientific companies who have been working in the field for years, further prompting the rise of this amazing and new tech for the betterment of humanity.

Thanks for reading.