Neuralink, a brain-chip startup founded by Elon Musk in 2016, has put a first chip on a human brain recently. In the past few years, it has faced investigation for mistreatment of lab animals and seen the departure of several company executives. Nevertheless, the PRIME trial, the clinical trial that evaluates the safety of its wireless brain-computer interface (BCI) and surgical robot, is a significant milestone for a company less than ten years old.
However, the company’s challenges are far from over. Implanting a device is just the start of a decades-long clinical project beset with competitors, financial hurdles and ethical quandaries.
How Is Patient Welfare At Stake?
This competitive field raises potential ethical issues concerning the welfare of patients in the PRIME study. Moreover, it is notoriously difficult to recruit participants to neural implant studies. Patients must meet strict criteria to be eligible, and the trials are inherently risky and require a lot of participants.
However, Neuralink will need to be prepared to provide long-term support, potentially decades, to patients. If things go wrong, patients may need support to live with the consequences; if things go right, the portfolio may need to make sure the devices don’t stop working.
Such devices, if proven successful, have the power to transform patient’s lives. But what happens if the company winds up operations because it can’t make a profit? A plan for long-term care is necessary.
The considerable hype surrounding Neuralink may have implications for obtaining informed consent from potential participants.
Musk famously juxtaposed the implant to a “Fitbit in your skull”. The device itself, as he recently revealed, is misleadingly named “Telepathy”.
This techno-futurist language may give participants surreal expectations about the likelihood and kind of individual benefit, also underappreciating the risks, which could include severe brain damage.
Does Neuralink Have Any Competitors?
YES, Neuralink faces stiff competition in the race to commercialise the first next-generation brain-computer interface.
Its most fierce competitor is a Melbourne-based start-up called Synchron. This Australian company recently used a microelectrode mesh threaded through the blood vessels of the brain, allowing paralysed patients to use tablets and smartphones, surf the internet, send emails and manage finances.
The Synchron implant, described as a “minimally invasive” brain-computer interface, requires only a minor incision in the neck, rather than the elaborate neurosurgery required by Neuralink and most other brain-computer interfaces.
In fact, in 2021 Synchron received a “Breakthrough Device Designation” in the United States, and is now onto its third clinical trial.
What Is The Way Forward?
In this next chapter of the Neuralink odyssey, Elon Musk and his team must maintain a strong commitment to research, integrity and patient care. Long-term planning and careful use of language will be necessary to prevent harm to patients and families.
In 2022, a company called ‘Second Sight Medical Product’ exhibited the risks. It had made retinal implants to treat blindness, but when the company went bankrupt, it left more than 350 patients around the world with obsolete implants and no way to remove them.
This serves as a nightmare scenario for all neurotechnology research, having catastrophic consequences for patients.
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Feature image designed by Saudamini Seth
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This post is tagged under: Neuralink, Elon Musk, PRIME, BCI, robot, patient welfare, Synchron, Australia, Melbourne, United States, brain, chip
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