Elon Musk Wants to Test Brain Implants in People

The device, which would sit in the skull, has not received regulatory approval for use in humans

Elon Musk at a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida
Elon Musk at a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida Saul Martinez / Getty Images

In a presentation on Wednesday, Elon Musk touted a brain implant that aims to link the human mind to computers.

The device, currently in development by his company Neuralink, has not received the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval to be sold, according to the New York Times Christina Jewett and Cade Metz. Musk said Wednesday he thinks that the company has submitted “most of” the paperwork required by the FDA, and that he hopes Neuralink can begin testing the device in humans in six months.

Musk has underestimated this number before. He previously said human trials would begin in 2020 and 2022, according to the Washington Post’s Pranshu Verma. His other companies SpaceX and Tesla have missed self-imposed deadlines for sending a Mars rocket to space and putting self-driving cars on the road, per CNN’s Jackie Wattles.

The new brain implant looks like a small stack of coins with hundreds of threads protruding from it, per the Times. Musk imagines robots installing these devices in humans by cutting a hole in the skull and placing the threads in the brain. The stack, which is as thick as the skull that it is embedded in, would sit in the bone.

Musk said Wednesday that Neuralink hopes to one day use the device to restore vision in people who were born blind and restore movement in people who have lost the ability to use their muscles. But experts have expressed skepticism at these grander claims.

“I would not say that with confidence,” Daniel Yoshor, a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, says to the Times of Musk’s claim about restoring vision. “I would be highly unsure of this kind of device in a patient with congenital blindness.”

Cristin Welle, a neuroscientist at the University of Colorado, tells the Times that regulators will need to determine whether the implant poses a safety risk, such as brain damage. So far, the company has tested on sheep, pigs and primates.

Showing the device is safe is “a big challenge,” Sumner Norman, a brain-computer interface scientist at the software company AE Studio, says to the Wall Street Journal’s Daniela Hernandez.

Musk showed videos on Wednesday in which he said a monkey moved a cursor on a screen to select highlighted letters and words using only the implant. In a 2006 experiment, a human accomplished a similar task, albeit with more bulky hardware, writes the Times. “These are incremental advances,” Yoshor tells the publication.

Neuralink has received criticism for its treatment of animals. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine said Wednesday that experiments on monkeys had resulted in chronic infections, seizures, paralysis and internal bleeding, and that some animals were killed, per CNBC’s Ashley Capoot.

Several monkeys have been euthanized due to infections thought to be related to the implants, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“Neuralink is a company [that] doesn’t have to answer to shareholders,” Xing Chen, an ophthalmologist at the University of Pittsburgh, says to CNBC. “I don’t know how much oversight is involved, but I think it’s very important for the public to always keep in mind that before anything has been approved by the FDA, or any governmental regulatory body, all claims need to be very, very skeptically examined.”

Neuralink is far from the only company working on brain-computer interfaces. The company Synchron got approval to conduct human trials for their device last year and implanted it in a human in July, per the Post.

In other experiments, paralyzed people have used computers and robotic arms via an implant, according to Laura Ungar of the Associated Press.

Implants have also been used in experiments to help people share their thoughts in the form of words on a screen, per the Wall Street Journal.