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Neuralink reports mechanical problems with implant following initial human surgery

Neuralink Corp., Elon Musk’s brain technology venture, faced a setback as it disclosed mechanical issues with the device implanted in its first human patient, as stated in a recent blog post by the company. Following the surgery on patient Noland Arbaugh in January, Neuralink observed retraction of some electrode-studded threads from the brain tissue, resulting in operational disruptions of the device. The Wall Street Journal initially reported on the malfunction.

In response to the retraction, Neuralink implemented a series of software fixes to address the issue. These adjustments led to a significant and sustained improvement in the device’s performance, surpassing Noland’s initial outcomes. Moreover, Neuralink is actively working on enhancing text entry and cursor control functionalities for the device. Additionally, the company aims to expand its capabilities to interact with physical world devices like robotic arms and wheelchairs.

Experts in the field of brain implants highlighted that the complications may have stemmed from the threading connecting to a device within the skull bone rather than on the surface of the brain tissue. Neurosurgeon Eric Leuthardt from Washington University School of Medicine noted the brain’s substantial movements within the intracranial space, emphasizing that even slight head movements could cause deviations of several millimeters. Matt Angle, CEO of rival company Paradromics Inc., pointed out that brain implants are typically placed directly on top of the brain tissue, allowing them to move fluidly. He highlighted that thread retraction is unusual for such implants.

Before implanting the device in Arbaugh, who is quadriplegic, Neuralink extensively tested the device in animals. However, one potential issue is that animals’ brains are smaller, resulting in lesser electrode movements compared to humans, according to Leuthardt.

Neuralink’s revelation of mechanical issues comes at a critical juncture as the company aims to expand its human trials. Any setbacks or malfunctions could potentially lead to delays in the regulatory approval process with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Despite the setback, Neuralink remains committed to advancing its brain-computer interface technology and addressing challenges to ensure the safety and efficacy of its implants in future human subjects.

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