Neuralink’s first brain-chip implant appeared flawless. There was a problem

Noland Arbaugh is the first human trial patient to have a Neuralink implant. PHOTO: NEURALINK
Noland Arbaugh is the first human trial patient to have a Neuralink implant. PHOTO: NEURALINK

Summary

The amount of data captured from the device declined, although the patient and the Elon Musk-owned company still staged a successful demonstration.

Neuralink encountered a problem with the implant in its first human patient, Noland Arbaugh, that reduced the amount of data it could capture from his brain, according to a blog post the company published on Wednesday.

Some data was lost because a number of the implant’s threads that had been placed in Arbaugh’s brain came out. The company, owned by Elon Musk, didn’t disclose the reason why some threads retracted unexpectedly.

Neuralink posted about the problem on its blog after The Wall Street Journal inquired about the issue.

One factor that Neuralink explored that may have contributed to the threads coming out is that air was trapped inside Arbaugh’s skull after surgery, a condition called pneumocephalus, according to people familiar with the events. The problem hasn’t appeared to pose a risk to safety of Arbaugh, a quadriplegic since a 2016 diving accident. Even so, the possibility of removing Arbaugh’s implant, a so-called “explantation," was floated, said these people.

The company said in its blog post that the retracted threads led to a reduction in bits-per-second, a measure of the speed and accuracy of Arbaugh’s ability to control a computer cursor with only his thoughts. In response the company said it made changes including modifying its algorithms that improved bits-per-second.

Even with the implant’s degraded capabilities, Neuralink was able to pull off a live demonstration of Arbaugh playing chess, a leap in the capabilities for a brain-computer interface technology. This past Saturday night Arbaugh also livestreamed himself on X using the implant to navigate around his computer screen and play games.

People inside Neuralink expected challenges with their first test in a human patient, and remain optimistic that this problem could be solved, enabling future implants to capture more data and offer greater capabilities for patients, said the people familiar with Arbaugh’s implant. The company has tried its implants in pigs, sheep and monkeys, but Arbaugh was the first human to receive the device, called the N1.

Jim Oberman and Elisa Cho contributed to this article

Write to Rolfe Winkler at Rolfe.Winkler@wsj.com and Alexa Corse at alexa.corse@wsj.com

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