How Elon Musk’s Latest Business Venture Could Impact Parkinson’s Disease
Last updated: June 2022
Elon Musk’s latest business venture is turning heads in the medical industry. While Musk is most well-known for his work with Tesla and SpaceX, the entrepreneur and investor is developing a device that can be embedded in the human brain to intercept or stimulate certain parts of it. He has described this device, called Neuralink, as a "Fitbit in your skull."1
What is Neuralink?
Neuralink Corporation was established in 2016 by Musk with the goal of using artificial intelligence and human intelligence in a symbiotic way. The resulting technology was first publicly acknowledged in 2017 in a Wall Street Journal article.2
It’s expected to work like this: A chip-sized device is embedded into the brain. It’s connected to several wires that are smaller than a strand of human hair. These wires are strategically placed within the brain. Once they are embedded, the device can be controlled by computers.1,3
This results in a brain-machine relationship. It could potentially provide control of certain bodily functions through the power of our thoughts. It might allow someone who is paralyzed to walk again, or stop dyskinesia in people with Parkinson's disease.1,3
Why does it matter to the Parkinson’s community?
Neuralink could significantly enhance the technology currently used for deep brain stimulation (DBS). DBS is neurosurgery that targets symptoms like tremors in some people with Parkinson’s. Neuralink could also ensure the continuous development of Parkinson’s treatments. Musk expects the technology to enhance studies that relate to brain impulses and the resulting medical conditions.1,3
Neuralink has captivated imaginations because it could help users master new talents. A monkey was documented playing video games with its mind after learning how to use the Neuralink technology. Elon Musk even stated that this system could help those who suffer with blindness due to an injury.1,4,5
How is it different from DBS?
As of right now, Neuralink differs from DBS technology in a few ways. It’s designed with different fibers, and it has a different number of electrodes. Neuralink technology may also provide a design that’s more flexible and more biocompatible, resulting in higher success rates.6
DBS was first used in the 1980s. Since then, it has gone through at least 384 trials, covering 28 different disorders. Over 160,000 patients have undergone DBS. It is specifically designed to target motor symptoms. DBS hardware connects electrodes that are implanted in the brain to a stimulator that’s placed into the chest. The patient’s doctor then programs the device to alleviate symptoms.7
Neuralink’s battery requires daily charging, while DBS needs to be charged only about once per week. Neuralink also has yet to begin human trials, making it an extremely new technology. While it offers promising insight and potential into movement disorders like Parkinson’s, it has several significant barriers standing in its way.
In December 2021, Musk announced that the company is hoping to embed chips into humans in 2022. As of right now, the company appears to be taking steps to deliver on that promise (like hiring a clinical trial director). But Musk admitted that they’re waiting on a few key pieces to come into alignment, like securing approval from the Food and Drug Administration for human trials.8
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