Neuralink could cure tinnitus within 5 years, says Elon Musk

Elon Musk believes his Neuralink brain chip could cure tinnitus within five years. But is it safe?

Neuralink, the brain-machine interface produced by Elon Musk’s eponymous company, already promises to revolutionize neuroscience on many levels. But while waiting for this technology to be mature enough to tackle the announced medical exploits, the firm hopes to start by solving relatively benign, but disabling problems on a daily basis. Musk, for example, estimates that his chip could rid its wearer of tinnitus within 5 years.

This is in any case what he said on his favorite playground, namely Twitter, in response to a user who questioned him on this question. “Is there any hope of curing tinnitus?”, asked JamesWLaw.

Absolutely“, immediately affirmed the billionaire before clarifying his point with figures. “We could be less than 5 years away, as the current version of Neuralink is a generalized reader and writer with around 1000 electrodes, and probably needs far less than 1000 in the case of tinnitus” he assures before recalling that “future generations of Neuralinks will increase the number of electrodes by several orders of magnitude”.

Brain-machine interfaces, a revolutionary technology

As a reminder, Neuralink is a brain machine interface, that is to say a cerebral implant connected directly to the outer layer of the brain. It must allow its owner to carry out different tasks with the sole force of thought by processing the input and output signals that reach it.

It was a pig that had had the honor of being the first guinea pig. In a remarkable proof of concept, Neuralink also allowed a monkey to play the video game pong by the sheer force of his brain.

Eventually, Elon Musk hopes that the implant produced by his teams will treat a whole host of very disabling conditions. He hopes that blind people will be able to regain their sight, that paraplegics will recover the use of their limbs, and so on…

Now all that remains is to open Pandora’s box – or rather the skull of a human person in flesh and blood to implant this chip with the help of a funny robot-surgeon with the air of a sewing machine, very precise and minimally invasive. A major turning point that the firm will have to negotiate with patience and cautiontwo words that do not not part of Elon Musk’s traditional vocabulary.

He proved it again by announcing that a treatment for tinnitus could be available within 5 years. As a reminder, this is a very common pathology that generates parasitic noises, such as high-pitched whistles, that patients hear without having been emitted by an external source. They are linked to damage to the nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain, the vestibulocochlear nerve.

Even though the mechanism itself is well known, clinicians have been fretting over this problem for ages; the only current solutions are more of a cache-misery, since they mainly consist in masking this parasitic sound.

Five years, really ?

But the vast majority of specialists agree that brain-machine interfaces like Neuralink have everything they need to manage a myriad of neurological problems. The scientific bases are in any case solid, and we can reasonably say that it is only a matter of time before reaching this deadline.

The announced timing is therefore more contentious. Musk likes to go fast, and he’s never shied away from that; it must be admitted that this pronounced taste for rapid progress has greatly contributed to the dazzling progress of SpaceX, Tesla or even Starlink… but the issues are very different in the case of Neuralink.

Indeed, this haste was understandable in the cases cited above; after all, the only things that suffer when a rocket crashes are SpaceX hardware and stock price. But we are talking here about neurosciences and more broadly about medicine, a discipline where the precautionary principle remains an absolute priority — something that Musk often brushed aside whenever he had the chance when pushing his teams to produce quick results.

The FDA is keeping watch

Its chips will therefore have to wait for the green light from the FDA, the American federal regulator which manages some of the public health issues. The latter considers Neuralink to be a class III medical device. A term that designates devices that involve considerable risks, and which must therefore comply with a very demanding certification protocol.

Obtaining FDA approval will therefore not be easy. In particular, the regulator will have to certify that the therapeutic benefits are indisputable. He must also meticulously document the slightest trace of possible side effects.

She will have to decide on the safety of the implantation protocol, but also on the extraction procedure which could potentially cause absolutely devastating brain infections. Finally, it will have to rule on the repairability of the machine.

This approach is essential to be able to move on to the next phase, namely the establishment of a vrai formal, large-scale clinical trial protocol. However, the FDA’s investigation could easily drag on, especially if it expresses reservations about important aspects of this technology.

If Elon Musk therefore has every reason to be confident about the future of Neuralink, it is however necessary to moderate his expectations and take all the announced deadlines with a grain of salt. It’s not tomorrow the day before that these implants will be democratized… and it’s probably a good thing that the FDA is tempering Musk’s enthusiasm, knowing the associated risks.

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