A few months after getting FDA approval for human trials, Neuralink is looking for its first test subjects. The six-year initial trial, which the Elon Musk-owned company is calling “the PRIME Study,” is intended to test Neuralink tech designed to help those with paralysis control devices. The company is looking for people with quadriplegia due to vertical spinal cord injury or ALS who are over the age of 22 and have a “consistent and reliable caregiver” to be part of the study.
The PRIME Study (which apparently stands for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface, even though that acronym makes no sense) is set to research three things at once. The first is the N1 implant, Neuralink’s brain-computer device. The second is the R1 robot, the surgical robot that actually implants the device. The third is the N1 User App, the software that connects to the N1 and translates brain signals into computer actions. Neuralink says it’s planning to test both the safety and efficacy of all three parts of the system.
To be clear: this is not the all-encompassing brain computer Musk has been talking about for years. Musk has spent years talking about the potential for telepathy and using Neuralink to help humans keep up with AI, and the system Neuralink plans to test is nothing close to that ambition.
Researchers have long been testing implants that let people with paralysis control computers and other devices, too. Two recently published studies, for instance, showed brain-to-computer interfaces could help patients with ALS communicate by typing on a computer.
Still, the study is a big step for Neuralink, which won FDA approval in May after being rejected by the agency in early 2022.
Neuralink has been a magnet for controversy over the years, too, both because of Musk’s overpromises and the company’s internal practices. Its treatment of monkeys in testing has repeatedly been an issue, for one — Musk recently said that the testing was only done on “terminal monkeys” and that no monkey ever died as a result of a Neuralink implant, but regulators have found lots of problems with its treatment of animals. The company is also under investigation for illegally transporting pathogen-laced devices removed from monkeys.
Those who participate in the PRIME Study will first participate in an 18-month study that involves nine visits with researchers. After that, they’ll spend at least two hours a week on brain-computer interface research sessions and then do 20 more visits over the next five years. Neuralink doesn’t say how many subjects it’s looking for or when it plans to begin the study but does say it only plans to compensate “for study-related costs” like travel to and from the study location. (Also not clear: where that location is. Neuralink only says it has received approval from “our first hospital site.”)
As with so many things about Neuralink, it can be hard to separate the company’s promises from its plans, and so it’s hard to know exactly what will come of the PRIME Study and when. But it appears we’re soon going to get our first look at what happens when you let Elon Musk all the way inside your head.