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Neuralink's Wire Issues Known, Yet Shows Promise in Human Test

Neuralink faces wire retraction challenges in brain implants, impacting device functionality despite prior animal testing insights.

By Athena Xu

5/15, 15:35 EDT
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Key Takeaway

  • Neuralink faces technical challenges with wire retraction in its brain-computer interface, affecting device functionality despite prior knowledge from animal tests.
  • First human patient Noland Arbaugh demonstrates device's potential by controlling digital devices with thought, despite issues.
  • FDA was aware of the wire retraction risk from animal studies; Neuralink continues to address safety and functionality concerns.

Neuralink's Wire Retraction Issue

Neuralink, the brain-computer interface company backed by Elon Musk, has encountered a technical challenge with its implant device, which has been under development for years. The issue, involving tiny wires retracting from the position inside the brain, was disclosed following the first human trial. Despite this setback, Neuralink had prior knowledge of the potential for wire retraction from animal testing conducted before receiving U.S. approval for human trials. The company assessed the risk as low and opted not to redesign the device. This decision was made even though the retraction of wires results in fewer electrodes being able to measure brain signals, crucial for the device's functionality in translating thoughts into digital actions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which granted Neuralink approval to begin human testing last year, was informed of the potential issue from the animal testing results shared by the company. Neuralink's first human patient, Noland Arbaugh, experienced wire retraction weeks after the surgery, affecting the device's data collection capabilities. However, Neuralink managed to restore functionality by adjusting the device's algorithm to be more sensitive.

Patient Impact and Device Functionality

Noland Arbaugh, paralyzed from a diving accident, became Neuralink's first human implant recipient. Despite the wire retraction issue, the device has enabled Arbaugh to interact with digital devices, such as playing video games and browsing the internet, by thinking alone. Neuralink reports that Arbaugh has achieved a world record in controlling a cursor with thought alone, showcasing the potential benefits of the technology for individuals with spinal cord injuries.

Challenges and Considerations

The wire retraction issue is not unique to Neuralink, as medical device companies often encounter design challenges during both animal and clinical testing phases. Specialists in brain implants note that solving the issue of thread movement is complex, partly due to the brain's natural movements within the skull. The FDA's initial rejection of Neuralink's application for human trials, citing safety concerns about the threads, led to additional animal testing by the company. This testing revealed that a subset of pigs developed granulomas, an inflammatory response, raising concerns about the threads' safety. However, Neuralink concluded that the device and threads were not the cause of the granulomas.

Street Views

  • Robert Gaunt, University of Pittsburgh (Neutral on Neuralink's technology):

    "In the immediate days, weeks, months after an implant like this, it’s probably the most vulnerable time."