Elon Musk has had a very busy time of it lately, what with his $44 billion Twitter buyout, Tesla struggles and the non-stop revelations about his private life.
Mr Musk, one of the richest people in the world, has come in for much criticism since taking over Twitter - a move that has led to controversies, like the ditching of the social media platform’s Covid misinformation policy and a spate of firing and rehiring. Some analysts believe the site is on the brink of collapse.
Meanwhile, Mr Musk has faced opprobrium for his views on the war in Ukraine and freedom of speech and has also seen his family dragged into the media spotlight, with reports of high-profile affairs and love children making international headlines.
One of these stories related to twins he had with Shivon Zilis - an executive at Neuralink, which is one of the many businesses he owns. The brain chip technology company has just made a major announcement about its operations.
In a post on Twitter, Neuralink said it had received the approval of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) "to launch our first-in-human clinical study", which it went on to say was "an important first step that will one day allow our technology to help many people". It is not starting to recruit yet.
So what does Neuralink do - and what has it announced? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is Neuralink?
Neuralink is a company that aims to link the human brain with other devices. Its current object is to help people with forms of paralysis, as well as cure neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. It was founded in 2016 by Elon Musk and several scientists, most of whom have since left the business.
There is no current estimate for how much the company is worth. But it is believed to have a value in the region of several hundred million dollars. It is not the only venture working in the brain implant business. Several other firms and university research initiatives are working to link the brain to computers for similar ends.
Rajesh Rao, a co-director at the Centre for Neurotechnology at the University of Washington, said work in this field has been taking place since the 1960s, but did not really take off until the 1990s. Having watched Neuralink’s latest announcement (more on that below), he said he does not think Neuralink is ahead of the other operators working on the technology.
“Recently we’ve seen lots of advances, especially in the area of communication brain computer interfaces. But [Neuralink is] quite ahead in terms of the actual hardware in the devices,” he said.
Fellow expert Dr Jaimie Henderson, a neurosurgery professor at Stanford University who advises Neuralink, said the company’s advantage is that it has the ability to reach into deeper layers of the brain. But he added that other devices “have lots of different advantages”.
Experiments by other teams have allowed paralysed people to use their brain waves to operate computers and robotic arms. In 2018, a study published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE revealed that three people with below-the-neck paralysis had used an experimental device to navigate emails and apps.
Another recent study published in another journal - Nature - found scientists at Swiss research centre NeuroRestore had managed to get nine people with spinal cord injuries to walk again thanks to the discovery of a neuron that could activate electrical stimulation of the spinal cord.
While Neuralink’s latest update has got headlines, it was previously in the headlines for very different reasons. In July 2022, it emerged Elon Musk had secretly fathered twins with one of its executives Shivon Zilis. It raised questions about whether the company is an ethical workplace given Mr Musk is the firm’s CEO and therefore, Ms Zilis’s boss.
What has Neuralink announced?
Neuralink say it has received the go ahead from the FDA to start carrying out human studies.
The full statement, posted on 25 May 2023 reads: "We are excited to share that we have received the FDA’s approval to launch our first-in-human clinical study! This is the result of incredible work by the Neuralink team in close collaboration with the FDA and represents an important first step that will one day allow our technology to help many people. Recruitment is not yet open for our clinical trial. We’ll announce more information on this soon!"
In a livestream towards the end of last year, that featured Elon Musk, the billionaire said clinical trials could commence in as soon as the middle of 2023.
The devices, which are roughly the size of a coin, are designed to be implanted into the skull and communicate with the brain through ultra-thin, electrode-containing wires that are attached to the organ. In theory, these can then transmit neural signals to external devices, like smartphones.
During the livestream, Mr Musk said this setup could initially fulfil two applications - restoring vision for people who have experienced sight loss, and aiding those who have little or no ability to operate their muscles to communicate with digital equipment.
Rajesh Rao said the announcement suggested Neuralink had found a way to link the region of the brain that deals with sight with the eye using signals. At present, other companies have only been able to achieve similar results through retinal implants. The company has not yet confirmed whether this inference is correct.
Further down the line, the Twitter boss says he believes Neuralink could act as a bridge between the brain and the spinal cord in someone who has a broken neck. He also said: “We’re confident there are no physical limitations to enabling full body functionality.”
Additional reporting by PA news agency