- In an interview on April 14th, Elon Musk, the founder of neuroscience company Neuralink promised the ability of its Link chip to manage obesity.
- The chip is still not approved for human trials and is mostly known for its power to cure neurological disorders such as anxiety and depression.
- Scientists believe that with appropriate research and technological development, Musk’s chip might be successful in proving its purpose.
American billionaire and philanthropist Elon Musk is a prolific personality in the world of science, space, and technology. The richest man on Earth and also the apt Time Person of the Year 2021 has several other notable accolades under his belt. Currently, in the news for his move to buy out the social media platform and micro-blogging site, Twitter, for 44 billion USD, the billionaire is known for his prowess in having his hands in multiple cookie jars. The enterprises representing his vision for the future range from his space exploration company, SpaceX to his sustainable energy automobile firm, Tesla. Another such exceptional venture is his company Neuralink.
What is Neuralink?
Neuralink is the ambitious brainchild of Musk’s interest in experiments with biology-based computer interfaces. Neuralink is essentially termed as a neuroscience company that has launched a brain chip, called the “Link”, which is almost the size of a large coin. This chip is meant to be implanted inside one’s brain by a robotic surgeon and is meant to connect one’s brain to the digital world, starting with one’s very own smartphone. According to Musk, as soon as the operation is successful and time for recovery is completed, humans will gain the same powerful abilities as artificial intelligence(AI) bots such as Alexa or Siri. This means one will be able to surf a million websites in a matter of mere seconds.
Experts believe that by using the basic BCI(Brain-Computer interfaces), they can use electrodes to replicate the normal biological activity of neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. This will even allow patients suffering from paralysis to send texts and shop from websites or simply use an electronic gadget, just by thinking about it. In a therapeutic dimension, Neuralink believes it can also cure patients suffering from various mental illnesses. Their chip can help in reducing triggering impulses produced by the brain which cause anxiety and depression while also being able to tackle autism. Also, the electrodes of this chip can help in firing non-functioning neurons of the brain which can help a patient with dementia regain even lost memories. Hence undoubtedly Musk believes that the chip will indeed result in a symbiosis between humans and artificial intelligence.
Interestingly, the world got to witness a taste of Musk’s live streaming brain implant in a live-streamed event back in 2021 through a segment called “Pigs in the Matrix.” On a giant screen, a real-time video of neurons firing in a test pig subject was played followed by a ringtone of the electrical activity in their brain.
Musk announces a new therapeutic goal
On April 14th, Elon Musk appeared for an interview with Chris Anderson, the founder of Ted Talk. In this highly anticipated interview Musk revealed a number of interesting facts. Firstly, in what can be described as a predecessor to his bid to buy out Twitter, the billionaire prompted the various changes required to be introduced on the platform to maintain its ideal of promoting free speech and democracy secondly, Musk flaunted his other company Neuralink’s potential.
Musk believes Neuralink will be successful in treating morbid obesity. Morbid obesity is a condition characterized by having a body mass index(BMI) greater than 30. This is a form of clinically severe obesity which can itself result from conditions that cause increased fat storage by the body and is also correlated to the consumption of certain drugs such as antidepressants like tricyclic antidepressant drugs and other conditions such as hypothyroidism or goiter.
In his interview, Musk himself revealed that his company is yet to receive the appropriate clearance required for human testing for its Link chip, but when it does receive the same, the firm will be mainly concentrating its efforts to curb brain and spinal injuries for a decade. Although how Neuralink plans to deal with obesity still remains unclear.
What do scientists and experts feel?
In general, scientists believe that neurotechnology can by the means of a “chip”, be the key to answering the problem of obesity but only with detailed research and the proper aspect of science backing it. Professor Andrew Jackson, an expert in neural interfaces at Newcastle University, believes that Elon Musk’s Link Chip solution might not be implausible.
Sadaf Farooqi, a professor of metabolism and medicine at the University of Cambridge, believes in a certain concept to use neurotechnology and its correlation with obesity management. She believes that it has been already demonstrated in the past, that people showing signs of severe clinical obesity have usually presented with dysfunction of a particular region of the brain known as the hypothalamus which is also known to be the hunger center of the body. This area not only controls a person’s appetite but also the satiety one feels after consumption of their meals.
Hence, if science can manage to produce a drug or use a “neuro technological aid” similar to the Link chip to control those neurons in this area of the brain, it could help. We can not. only effectively control obesity but improve patients’ lives.
In this regard, Professor Jackson of Newcastle feels that a “brain implant” can arguably be a less invasive option than other treatments for morbid obesity, which involve changing the shape and function of a patient’s digestive system.
Contradictorily, Francesco Rubino, head of metabolic surgery at King’s College London, said brain implant technology seemed a promising avenue but a chip focussing solely on appetite reduction would likely be “set to fail.” This idea comes from the fact that new research suggests it’s not only the way people eat that makes them overweight but rather it could also be possible that the body itself doesn’t regulate weight properly by burning available fat for energy. Rubino believes that If one can find the appropriate trigger of the disease and target that with an implant, that would be a better option.
What do early trials suggest?
Some brave researchers are in fact so confident in brain implant technology that they’ve moved to early proof-of-concept trials on humans which in turn has garnered mixed results.
One trial involving six people with morbid obesity which included all such participants with a body-mass index above 40, had involved a brain implant that transmitted frequent electric pulses to their hypothalamus. According to Elemental, the results were as such one participant lost more than 100 pounds, three lost a little weight but not a substantial amount, and the other two lost no weight at all. Hence, the results were at best, disorganized. In a separate but similar trial, according to Elemental, only one of three participants lost weight while another small trial is ongoing. Dr. Farooqi believes these trials are more informative than result-oriented. Hence scientists intend to learn more about the efficacy and the safety of such brian implants as Musk’s Neuralink instead of being adamant about obtaining desired results.
Either way, a brain chip that can effectively fight obesity is likely a long way off. Experts believe that there’s still scope for quite a lot of science that would be needed, alongside the technology development, to deliver this method as a therapy to improve patient lives.