Neuralink Safety Concerns Drove Co-Founder to Break Up With Elon Musk

A neurosurgeon and co-founder of Elon Musk’s biotech company Neuralink says he left the seven-year-old firm because he felt there was a safer way to connect human brains to computers.

“I’ve pretty much devoted my entire professional life to bringing neural interfaces from the world of science to the world of medicine,” Dr. Benjamin Rapoport said in a recent Wall Street Journal podcast interview. “But I felt that in order to move to the world of medicine and technology, safety is paramount.”

Neuralink’s approach to brain-computer interfaces (BCI) requires the insertion of many electrodes into the brain’s tissue, which Rapoport says brings unnecessary risks for the patient.

“Those (electrodes) have the drawback of doing some amount of brain damage when they’re inserted into the brain, and I felt that it was possible to extract information-rich data from the brain without damaging the brain,” he explained.

Rapoport has since founded his own company, Precision Neuroscience, hoping to achieve equivalent results with non-invasive technology.

The Neuralink approach has raised alarm both inside and outside the company, starting with its treatment of early test subjects. Inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) raised concerns about poor animal welfare controls at Neuralink observed during inspections of the company’s California laboratory in 2021 and 2022.

Furthermore, according to company records reviewed by Reuters, since 2018, Neuralink has killed roughly 1,500 animals in its attempts to successfully connect brains to computer interfaces.

The company nonetheless received FDA approval to begin human trials, and began actively recruiting for human test subjects in late September. Neuralink reported inserting a chip into its first living human in January.

The patient reportedly remained healthy with no adverse results, but experts from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have urged Neuralink to halt all animal and human experiments and instead focus on non-invasive brain-computer interfaces.

The battle for brain supremacy

Precision Neuroscience, founded by Rapoport in 2021 after his departure from Neuralink, is focused on using surface microelectrodes that coat the brain’s surface without penetrating it.

“For a medical device, safety often implies minimal invasiveness, and in the early days of brain-computer interfaces, there was this notion that in order to extract information-rich data from the brain, one needed to penetrate the brain with tiny little needle-like electrodes,” Rapaport said.

This is no longer the case, he added, outlining his new company’s methods.

“At precision, the physical interface with the brain is a thin film about a quarter of the width of a human eyelash that conforms to the undulating surface of the brain,” Rapoport explained on the podcast. “And inside that thin film are embedded tiny little platinum micro electrodes, each one about the size of a neuron.”

These electrodes are arranged in a lattice pattern on the brain’s surface, detecting electrical signals while filtering out noise, he said. The data is then compressed, transmitted externally, and translated into intelligible form by machine learning software calibrated to each individual’s unique brain signals.

While Neuralink’s approach may offer access to a larger trove of neural data, Precision Neuroscience’s method could mitigate the risks associated with invasive procedures, Rappoport asserted.

The two-time neurotech founder said he is optimistic about the overall potential of brain-computer interfaces, calling them a “platform technology” that could enable new applications in different fields as interfaces improve. BCIs will start becoming more common for medical patients in the next few years and could eventually change the way healthy people interact with computers, too, according to Rapoport.

“With brain-computer interface technology, we think we will be able to enable smooth, intuitive functionality that will allow [a disabled person] to type, use PowerPoint, use Excel, surf the internet, send email, do all the things that the average worker can do—perhaps even better,” he said.

As with any breakthrough medical tech, however, BCIs are as expensive as they are promising. Rapoport explains that the costs come from the huge amounts of research and development required to implement these procedures safely and at scale.

Still, he said, we can’t rule out a future where these enhancements are widely available, adding that Precision Neuroscience aims to make its tech as accessible as possible without losing its moral compass.

“It’s very important to all of us that the technology be accessible and affordable,” he concluded. ”We’re committed to the price point not being a barrier to entry.”

Edited by Ryan Ozawa.

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