First Neuralink brain-chip patient successfully plays online chess

Elon Musk’s brain-chip startup, Neuralink, has shown its first patient moving a cursor on a computer using the implanted device.

After being given the go-ahead to begin human trials in 2023, in January 2024, Neuralink had announced that it had successfully implanted a wireless brain chip in the first human subject.

Noland Arbaugh, who became paralysed below the shoulders following a diving accident, appeared in a nine-minute livestream on X, utilising the cursor to engage in online chess.

"The surgery was super easy," Arbaugh commented during the presentation, also revealing that he used this new ability to play the video game Civilization VI. Neuralink allowed him "the ability to do that again and played for eight hours straight", he said.

Neuralink aims to link human brains to computers, aiming to address intricate neurological conditions. Utilising a device the size of a one-pound coin, this apparatus is implanted into the patient's skull. It employs microscopic wires capable of monitoring neuron activity and transmitting a wireless signal to a receiving unit. The company has previously conducted successful trials with its brain chip in pigs and reported that monkeys could play a rudimentary version of the video game Pong.

Although the development in humans shows promise and progression towards its goal, Arbaugh had mentioned the new technology was not perfect and they "have run into some issues.” Earlier concerns raised by the US FDA, including worries about the device's lithium battery and the risk of the implant's tiny wires migrating to other areas of the brain, were eventually dismissed, which led to the approval and subsequent implantation of the device for the first time.

Rivals of Musk's Neuralink are progressing in the neural technology sector, working to transition from prototypes to commercial products. The École Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland, notably enabled a paralysed man to walk simply by thinking about the movements required.

The neural technologies developed by institutions such as École and Musk's Neuralink harness the electricity produced by the 86 billion neurons in the human brain. These neurons, linked by synapses, generate and transmit tiny electrical impulses from one neuron to another.

Scientists have developed devices which can detect some of those signals - either using a non-invasive cap placed on the head or wires implanted into the brain itself.

The technology - known as a brain-computer interface - is where a lot of research and investment is heading in Medtech, which could be worth as much as $748.20 billion by 2028.