Elon Musk’s controversial brain-computer interface (BCI) tech, Neuralink, has supposedly been implanted in its first recipient — and as much as I want to see progress for treatment of paralysis and neurodegenerative disease, I’m not celebrating. I bet the neuroscientists he reportedly drove out of the company aren’t either, especially not after seeing the gruesome torture of test monkeys and apparent cover-up that paved the way for this moment.
All of which is an ethics horror show on its own. But the timing of Musk’s overhyped implant announcement gives it an additional insulting subtext. Football players are currently in a battle for their lives against concussion-based brain diseases that plague autopsy reports of former NFL players. And Musk’s boast of false hope came just two weeks before living players take the field in the biggest and most brutal game of the year.
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert reports neuro-damage is up this year as “players suffered a total of 52 concussions from the start of training camp to the beginning of the regular season. The combined total of 213 preseason and regular season concussions was 14% higher than 2021 but within range of the three-year average from 2018 to 2020 (203).”
These concussions are why traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and neurodegenerative diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) kill more people in contact sports like football than any other group. League medics now average 1.6 player evaluations per game, another increase. And there were twice as many medical timeouts in 2022 as in 2021.
“No helmet will ever be concussion-proof, because the brain still moves inside the skull."
In 2017, CTE was found to have been implicated in the deaths of 99% of the 111 deceased former NFL players examined by scientists. That jaw-dropping study was echoed last week when researchers diagnosed CTE in 345 of 376 former NFL players, living and dead, including “former Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Ed Lothamer, who played for the Chiefs in the very first Super Bowl and was a member of their winning team in Super Bowl IV.”
Some changes to equipment and rules may bring these numbers down a bit — but we’ve known for years these tweaks aren’t going to stop TBI and CTE entirely, when a player’s job is to go head-first into car-crash-level collisions.
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“No helmet will ever be concussion-proof, because the brain still moves inside the skull. And for the same reason, a helmet alone will not prevent CTE,” neuroscientist Julie Stamm said in 2019.
The NFL may have banned head-to-head hits but you can’t really eliminate them from gameplay. Even if you could, they aren’t the main cause of concussions. As noted in a University of Texas-Austin case study, “there is little evidence that such incremental changes [e.g., in tackling techniques] have a substantial risk-reducing effect.”
What Irvin Muchnick wrote for Salon last year is just as true ahead of the game this year: “Dirty-shmirty. Clean-shmean. Football is deadly. It was designed to be deadly.”
So be it. If we refuse to prevent the injuries we cause, we have all the more obligation to heal them. In recent years, emerging BCI tech studies have begun offering a glimpse of hope in the treatment of TBI and CTE. Deep-brain stimulation and emerging methods aided by artificial intelligence are even presenting new potential for cognitive recovery. And if advanced monitoring of brain signals in football players helps prevent scores of them developing TBI and dying from CTE, then the league profiting off lethal human destruction has nothing short of a moral obligation to put every penny it has into research and development of medical tech aimed at players’ protection, subsequent treatment and their (shortened) life-long care.
I’m a big fan of body-tech: pacemakers, 3D-printed hips and prosthetic limbs that allow you to wear your wedding ring again after 17 years. Same for brain chips. But BCI is the slow-moving front of body-tech development for good reason. The brain is too understudied. Consequences of the wrong move are dire. Overpromising marketable results on profit-driven timelines — on the backs of such a small community of researchers in a relatively new field — would be either idiotic or fiendish.
Brown University’s research in the sector goes back to the 1990s. Since the emergence of a floodgate-opening 2002 study and the first implant in 2004 by med-tech company BrainGate, more promising results have inspired broader investment into careful research. But BrainGate’s clinical trials started back in 2009, and as noted by Business Insider’s Hilary Brueck, are expected to continue until 2038 — with only 15 participants who have devices installed.
Kaiir Elam #24 and Taiwan Jones #25 of the Buffalo Bills wave flags in support of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin at Highmark Stadium on January 08, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. Hamlin's catastrophic on-field collapse and cardiac arrest on January 2, 2023 caused the unprecedented suspension of an NFL game, and brought home for a national TV audience the variegated harms of America's most popular sport. (Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images)
Anne Vanhoestenberghe is a professor of active implantable medical devices at King’s College London. In a recent release, she cautioned against the kind of hype peddled by Musk.
“Whilst there are a few other companies already using their devices in humans and the neuroscience community have made remarkable achievements with those devices, the potential benefits are still significantly limited by technology,” she said. “Developing and validating core technology for long term use in humans takes time and we need more investments to ensure we do the work that will underpin the next generation of BCIs.”
"This is much more than just an engineering problem"
She’s right. Cyberpunk-dystopia fears about Neuralink are warranted in the cultural conversation but, if we’re reading that genre for omens, let’s note that it’s almost never the tech itself in those stories causing problems. Rather, it’s the rich jerks who make it with low-bid quality and unethical experiments, neglect their duty to tech upkeep, and prevent owners from repairing it.
Neuralink is a metal coin in your head that connects to something as flimsy as an app. And we’ve seen how Elon treats those. We’ve also seen corporate goons steal a veteran’s prosthetic legs — and companies turn brain surgeons and dentists into repo-men by having them yank anti-epilepsy chips out of people’s skulls, and dentures out of their mouths.
"I think we have a chance with Neuralink to restore full-body functionality to someone who has a spinal cord injury," Musk said at a 2023 tech summit, adding that the chip could possibly "make up for whatever lost capacity somebody has."
Maybe BCI can. But only in the careful hands of scientists who don’t have Musk squawking “go faster!” over their shoulders. His greedy frustration with the speed of BCI science is telling, as is the animal cruelty it reportedly prompted.
"How we think, how we feel, how we experience — this is much more than just an engineering problem," neuroscientist Anil Seth told the BBC recently. “The kind of strategy that Musk has found so successful in building electric cars or rockets, I don't think it transfers smoothly over to this domain.”
“Neuralink have not published information about their participant, nor about the specific aim of the trial,” Vanhoestenberghe pointed out.
Elon’s Neuralink hype is an ugly insult. To inflate medical hope of brain recovery based on concealed data and sloppy methods is cruel. But to do it ahead of the Super Bowl — where a good chunk of players are nearly guaranteed to age into a painful early death — is enough to make me wonder if it’ll take someone cracking Elon’s helmet to make him see the light.
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