Microchip in a human brain: between prospects and perplexities

Microchip in a human brain: between prospects and perplexities

6 February 2024 Off By Oscar Giacomin

“The first human received an implant from Neuralink yesterday and is recovering well. Initial results show promising neuron spike detection.” This is what Elon Musk wrote on X.com (formerly Twitter) just a few hours ago to announce the achievement of what until yesterday seemed possible only in science fiction: the implantation of a wireless microchip in a human brain. The procedure was performed by the neurotechnology company co-founded by Mr. Tesla in 2016 (Neuralink), and the recipient of the device (named Telepathy) was a tetraplegic patient. The delicate procedure, carried out by a robot developed specifically by Neuralink, involved implanting a button-sized chip in the patient’s skull, with 16 “threads”, each thinner than a hair, and from which 1,024 electrodes interact with the brain’s neurons.

Neuralink’s goal is to establish direct communication channels between the brain and computers (PCs, smartphones, or other devices), allowing the individual to control electronic devices with their thoughts. This could be of great help in the treatment of serious issues such as paralysis and debilitating neurological disorders like ALS, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s. At the same time, moving beyond the purely medical realm, it could pave the way for new faculties of the human brain that combine the power of our brain with that of artificial intelligence.

It should be noted that Neuralink was not the first company to embark on this path. Brain-computer interfaces have been under development for at least 20 years, and internationally, there are dozens of university centers and industries working on sophisticated brain microelectrodes for various applications, mainly in the field of neurological rehabilitation.

However, reaching human experimentation is a significant turning point for Neuralink and an achievement that only a few have reached so far.

How should we interpret Musk’s announcement then? The scientific community suggests caution, stating that real successes can only be assessed in the long term, and we are still in the early stages of human experimentation. Neuralink itself has set a 6-year duration for its clinical study.

Moreover, given the highly invasive surgical procedure involved, the technology used by Musk’s company is not without risks (for example, it remains to be seen if the presence of microelectrodes in the cortex induces inflammation of neurons). Therefore, it must not only prove to work but also offer significant and lasting benefits that justify the risks.

Furthermore, if Neuralink has demonstrated with this procedure that implanting a microchip is feasible for now, experts observe that the real challenge lies elsewhere: in interpreting signals from the brain and then succeeding in stimulating and restoring it.

There are also numerous ethical questions raised by Neuralink’s experimentation and its possible developments. For example, how far can technology’s intervention in the brain go? For what purposes will it be ethically acceptable to allow such forms of interference? And how to balance the progress of medical treatments with the potential economic business at stake?

We are facing unknown future scenarios. What is certain is that the journey has begun, and Neuralink is currently one of the main players.


Oscar Giacomin  / General Manager, Facto Edizioni

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