Neuralink's Brain Implant Trials Hit Roadblock as Most Electrodes Malfunction


Neuralink Implant Trials Hit Stumbling Block as Most Brain Electrodes Fail

A major setback has struck Neuralink, the brain-computer interface company founded by billionaire Elon Musk. Only a fraction of the implanted electrodes in its first human trial are still functioning as intended, according to a new report.

The Wall Street Journal revealed that a mere 15% of the hair-thin electrode threads surgically implanted into the brain of trial participant Noland Arbaugh continue to work properly. A staggering 85% of the 1,024 total electrodes have become dislodged from their targeted positions over time.

For Arbaugh, 29, who suffers from an unspecified neurological condition, the failure was a crushing emotional blow. After the initial euphoria of being on the cutting edge of revolutionary brain-machine technology, he was devastated to learn the vast majority of implanted electrodes had stopped transmitting meaningful neural data.

"I was on such a high and then to be brought down that low. It was very, very hard," Arbaugh told the Journal. "I cried."

While Neuralink says it tweaked its data processing to partially make up for the widespread electrode failures, even exceeding some prior performance metrics, the extent of the malfunctions represents a huge technical obstacle for the ambitious startup.

Arbaugh recounted asking Neuralink about getting a revision surgery to fix or replace the faulty implant. But the company declined for now, saying it needed to collect more information from his experience first.

Despite the crushing disappointment, Arbaugh's hope in the transformative promise of brain-computer interfaces remains undimmed. "I thought I had just scratched the surface of this amazing technology, and then it was all going to be taken away," he reflected. "But it only took me a few days to recover and realize that everything I've done will benefit everyone who comes after me."

Neuralink prepares for its next implant surgery, tentatively scheduled for June pending FDA approval. The company believes implanting the electrode threads 8mm deep, rather than the 3-5mm used in Arbaugh's case, could prevent the kind of dislodging and failure seen in the first trial.

While brain-computer interface technology has been studied for decades, with the first neural cursor using just 96 electrodes reported back in 2006, Neuralink's latest issue lays bare the immense scientific and engineering challenges in developing safe, reliable neural implants that can seamlessly interface with the human brain long-term.

Overcoming these hurdles will be critical if such mind-machine merger technologies are to fulfill their promise of restoring functionality to those with neurological disabilities and conditions. While an ambitious moonshot goal, Neuralink's implant setback shows there is still a vast frontier of uncharted brain territory to map.