SCIENCE – After Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter, Elon Musk is also investing in the field of health. The billionaire dons the white coat and says in a tweet on April 24 that brain prostheses from his company Neuralink will cure tinnitus within five years. Scientists temper candumpteenth visionary project of Musk whereas today there is no miracle treatment for this disorder.
Although neuroscientists have made substantial progress, gray areas persist in understanding tinnitus. Science has several hypotheses that combine hearing loss and a neurological problem. The first: a loss of hearing would cause a reaction of the brain which “turns up the sound” to compensate for the deafness. Another explains it by a destabilization of the auditory cortex, the region of the brain that analyzes sounds.
To “cure” tinnitus, it would be necessary to find which neuron is at the origin of this dysfunction in the brain. Now, there are 85 billion of them and there are 100,000 billion connections between them. “To put this astronomical figure into perspective, there are over 400 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy,” writes David Tuffley, senior lecturer in applied ethics and cybersecurity, at Griffith University in the science media. The Conversation.
Researchers are trying to shed light on the brain map, but there are far too many neurological pathways. According to Elon Musk, the connected chip, “Link”, developed by Neuralink, will guide science to eradicate this disorder. “Link”, no larger than a coin, is implanted into the skull by a surgical robot to connect to the sound-related cortex. A thousand microscopic wires are attached to the chip and cling to neurons. To communicate with them, the scientists then connect Link to an external computer via Bluetooth.
The project seems futuristic but it is serious. Since its creation in 2016, Neuralink has recruited many neuroscientists from academia. According to them, this technology could help people suffering from neurological disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease or paraplegia.
In addition, neural implants have been developed since the 1960s, the first was placed on this date in a hearing impaired person. It is therefore, on paper, not absurd that such a device can cure tinnitus.
The first tests of Neuralink chips have even already been carried out on animals. In a rather impressive video, published by Neuralink in April 2021, we see a macaque monkey, Pager, having fun on a video game thanks to a chip implanted in its brain and connected to a computer running the game. The feat was facilitated by a carrot: as soon as Pager made a correct movement, he received a sip of banana smoothie.
The test was a success: once the device was unplugged, Pager was able to play on its own. This experiment also allowed scientists to associate a neuron with a Pager movement to better understand its brain activity.
A risky man-machine fusion
For now, Neuralink can play on the neurons of monkeys and teach them new behaviors, but the company is far from curing human diseases. No human trials, even for simple experiments like the one done on Pager, have been done. And it’s probably not about to happen, monkeys have died during Neuralink tests.
In addition to the side effects, scientists warn about the commercial fallout of such a device. “I worry about an uncomfortable marriage between a for-profit company…and these medical interventions that are hopefully there to help people,” worries Karola Keritmair, assistant professor of medical history and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, on the science news site Futura.
This chip also raises ethical questions: what will become of the data collected in the human brain? What are the risks of hacking or espionage by malicious individuals?
The risks of this technology are so enormous that they currently outweigh its uncertain benefits. The US health police, the FDA, has yet to comment on whether to continue Neuralink human trials. But scientist David Tuffley recalls in The Conversation that the administration already categorizes the Link chip as “Class III medical devices, the riskiest category.” With this technology, you have to be patient and careful, two qualities that Musk lacks.
See also on The HuffPost: With Neuralink, Elon Musk wants to read your thoughts from 2020