SAN FRANCISCO • Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s neuroscience start-up Neuralink has unveiled a pig named Gertrude which has had a coin-size computer chip in her brain for two months, showing off an early step towards the goal of curing human diseases with the same type of implant.
Neuralink, co-founded in 2016 by Mr Musk, chief executive of Tesla Inc and SpaceX, aims to implant wireless brain-computer interfaces that include thousands of electrodes into the most complex human organ to help cure neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and spinal cord injuries, and ultimately fuse humankind with artificial intelligence.
“An implantable device can actually solve these problems,” Mr Musk said in a webcast on Friday, mentioning ailments such as memory loss, hearing loss, depression and insomnia.
He did not provide a timeline for those treatments, appearing to retreat from earlier statements that human trials would begin by the end of this year.
Neuralink’s first clinical trials with a small number of human patients would be aimed at treating paralysis or paraplegia, said its head surgeon Matthew MacDougall.
Neuroscientists unaffiliated with Neuralink said the presentation indicated that the San Francisco-based company had made great strides, but cautioned that longer studies were needed.
Mr Musk presented what he described as the “three little pigs demo”. Gertrude, the pig with a Neuralink implant in the part of her brain that controls the snout, required some coaxing by Mr Musk to appear on camera, but eventually began eating off a stool and sniffing straw, triggering spikes on a graph tracking her neural activity.
Mr Musk said the company had three pigs with two implants each, and also revealed a pig that previously had an implant. They were “healthy, happy and indistinguishable from a normal pig”, he said, adding that the company predicted a pig’s limb movement during a treadmill run at “high accuracy” using implant data.
He described Neuralink’s chip, which is 23mm in diameter, as “a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires”.
“I could have a Neuralink right now and you wouldn’t know… Maybe I do,” he said.
One comment from a webcast viewer described the animals as “Cypork”.
Dr Graeme Moffat, a University of Toronto neuroscience research fellow, said Neuralink’s advancements were “order of magnitude leaps” beyond current science, thanks to the novel chip’s size, portability, power management and wireless capabilities.
Stanford University neuroscientist Sergey Stavisky said the company had made substantial and impressive progress since an initial demonstration of an earlier chip in July last year.
“Going from that to the fully implanted system in several pigs they showed is impressive and, I think, really highlights the strengths of having a large multi-disciplinary team focused on this problem,” said Dr Stavisky.
Some researchers said longer studies would be required to determine the longevity of the device.
Neuralink’s chip could also improve the understanding of neurological diseases by reading brain waves, one of the company’s scientists said during the presentation.