From Neuralink to Onward: ‘To Walk Again’, that dream is one step closer

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February 3, 2024
Today at
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Even though the first Neuralink chip implanted in a human is not a revolutionary leap in brain technology, it does fuel the hope of some people in wheelchairs. ‘I’m preparing for the day I can walk again.’

‘I also want to walk again.’ ‘This is my dream!’ ‘Where can I register as a test subject?’ These are just some of the reactions that followed a message from serial entrepreneur and billionaire Elon Musk. Last week he announced that his company Neuralink had implanted a brain chip in a volunteer for the first time.

The chip the size of a coin is intended to control electronic devices with thoughts alone. This should offer perspective to hundreds of thousands of people with paralyzed limbs or the nerve-muscle disease ALS – who knows, they may one day be able to move normally again thanks to Neuralink’s technology.

The new step in brain technology did not go unnoticed in our country either. Former triathlete Marc Herremans, among others, picked up the message. The man, who was paralyzed from the chest down after an accident in 2002, has long hoped that companies will make his dream of walking again a reality. He spreads that message through his non-profit organization To Walk Again, among other things. ‘Twenty years ago I was portrayed as a fantasist. Less and less now. Science is advancing by leaps and bounds.’


Twenty years ago I was portrayed as a fantasist. Less and less now. Science is advancing by leaps and bounds.

Marc Herremans

Non-profit organization To Walk Again

‘Neuralink has achieved a special performance’, acknowledges Professor Sebastian Haesler, director of Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders (NERF). But according to him she is not revolutionary. ‘Electrodes have been placed in the brain for a long time. Today there are at least 150,000 people undergoing deep brain stimulation.’ In that case, electrodes deliver electric shocks to counteract symptoms of Parkinson’s or epilepsy, among other things.

‘Hello World’

What Neuralink does falls into a different category. The company wants one brain-computer interface (BCI) development. A chip tries to read signals in the brain so that a wireless connection can be established with, for example, a computer. At least a thousand players worldwide are working on this rapidly advancing technology. This has already led to spectacular results at the University of California, among others. Last year, a paralyzed woman had 256 electrodes placed on the surface of her brain, allowing her to suddenly speak again after 18 years. The Australian company Synchron also came a long way two years ago. Thanks to an implant, an ALS patient could send a tweet just by thinking about it. “Hello world,” the man wrote.

The paths taken by neurotech companies vary widely. Some go for the smallest chips possible, while others make as many contact points as possible. Some players target other areas, such as the spinal cord. The listed Onward Medical is furthest along in this regard. Last year it showed how Gert-Jan Oskam, a man with a spinal cord injury, can walk short distances again thanks to his electrodes. “We remain unique in the world,” says CEO Dave Marver.


Full screen display
Neuralink founder Elon Musk.
©REUTERS

The Dutchman is not the only one with Onward Medical technology in his body. Last year it became known that another man with a spinal cord injury received an implant in the hope of getting his arms, hands and fingers moving again. Marver does not want to say what the situation is. ‘But we have no plans to stop our investigations yet. We have European subsidies for three additional people.’

Onward Medical does not see Neuralink as a competitor, but as a companion. ‘It’s fantastic to see that Musk is also making progress and generating so much attention. This benefits the entire field,” says Marver. He himself saw his company’s shares skyrocket this week, following in the wake of Neuralink. Onwards says his biggest challenge is access to resources. The company, founded in 2015, has raised about $170 million since its inception. By comparison, Neuralink collected more than $320 million in August and November alone.

Scar

According to Onward Medical, the commercialization of its technology is not far away. “It should be possible within five to six years.” Professor Haesler also believes that by 2030 a number of brain-computer interfaces will have a practical application. “But it will be for a niche group of people who are immobile or cannot communicate.”


I expect that there will be practical applications by 2030, but only for a niche group of people who are immobile or cannot communicate.

Sebastian Haesler

Director of Neuro-Electronics Research Flanders

And even then, not every patient will be eligible, let alone willing, to undergo major neurosurgery. ‘We don’t know the long-term consequences yet. What if scar formation occurs and signals are transmitted less well? How easily can such a chip be removed? Or replace?’, Haesler wonders. He calls the potential great, ‘but so are the risks’.

Herremans agrees. ‘Even though I am happy with my life, in the long term I would like to join a project like that of Onward Medical. Provided its technology is advanced and its side effects are negligible. As long as my three children are young and need me, I won’t go under the knife anyway.’

In the meantime, the fifty-year-old continues his daily training sessions of four to five hours. ‘I want to keep my body in top condition. Not only to live a healthy life, but also because I want to be prepared for the day when the ultimate medical solution is available.’

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Neuralink Onward Walk dream step closer

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