Neuralink human trials hit snag with brain implant problems

Elon Musk’s Neuralink has encountered a hurdle in its human trials. The company revealed in a blog post that the brain implant placed in their first patient, Noland Arbaugh, experienced mechanical problems. Weeks after surgery in January, some of the electrode-laden threads implanted in Arbaugh’s brain tissue began to retract, causing malfunctions.

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The Wall Street Journal first reported the issue. Neuralink addressed the retraction with software fixes, claiming these resulted in “rapid and sustained improvement that has now surpassed Noland’s initial performance.” Their focus now shifts to improving text input and cursor control, with the ultimate goal of enabling control of external devices like robotic limbs.

Experts in brain implants point to the device’s design as a potential culprit. Unlike traditional implants that rest directly on the brain’s surface, Neuralink’s threads connect to a device within the skull. This difference might be causing issues.

“The brain moves significantly within the skull,” explains Eric Leuthardt, a neurosurgeon. “Even simple head movements can cause disruptions.” Matt Angle, CEO of a rival brain-implant company, compares traditional implants to “a boat on water” on the brain’s surface. Retracting threads, he emphasizes, are “not normal” for such implants.

Neuralink conducted extensive animal testing before implanting the device in Arbaugh, a quadriplegic. However, Leuthardt highlights that animal brains are smaller, and electrodes might experience less movement compared to humans.

This malfunction comes as Neuralink seeks to expand human trials. Any complications could delay the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process.