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ASU neuroscientists weigh in on the 'Link' between risk and reward in human testing

Neuralink, a company by Elon Musk, is developing a brain implant called the Link, which could begin human trials imminently


Researcher Bradley Greger weighs in on the ethics of Elon Musk beginning human trials for Neurolink.

While brain implants are often thought of as science fiction, recruitment for clinical trials has begun for exactly that. However, in light of a famous and gruesome testing failure in primates, concerns have been raised about potential risks.

On Sept. 19, Elon Musk officially received approval from an independent review board to begin recruitment for human trials of Neuralink Corp's new invention. The device, called the Link, is a brain implant that aims to assist with paralysis and similar neurological conditions by allowing them to control external devices with their brain.

Bradley Greger, who has been an associate professor with ASU's Neuroscience program for the past decade, said he believes in the potential of the device.

"I think the technology holds a great deal of promise, and particularly in the shorter term, for new treatment modalities for neurological disorders," Greger said. "The ones I'm particularly excited about are treatments for paralysis for a spinal cord injury or neuropathology. Giving them the ability to control a computer or a robotic arm or a wheelchair, just to give them more mobility and more control over their environment."

Human trials plan to include those who are paralyzed due to a cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. However, previous safety concerns raised by current and former employees at Neuralink have paused progress with the FDA.

According to those working on the device, the Link is still over a decade away from fully launching to the public, but the project already has hopes of expanding to neurological conditions.

Jui-Heng Tseng, an assistant professor with the Neurodegenerative Disease Faculty, believes that Neuralink's device could help with the struggles of aging.

"When people get older, whether they have Alzheimer's disease or not, the communication within their brains will be less active, which is a simple consequence of aging," Tseng said. "This brain-computer interface could provide gentle electrical stimulations to revitalize the normal communications between new and older cells in the brain." 

However, if implanted incorrectly, it could have severe effects on the user.

"In this case, the exact location for the chip being placed is critical," Tseng said. "It could cause negative effects like epilepsy if you induce electric currents. The electric stimulations cannot be too strong or too subtle. Moreover, I think this microchip could be an instrument to alleviate symptoms, but we will not be able to slow down or stop the cognitive decline." 

For Neuralink's device to be a viable and reliable treatment down the line, the coming clinical trials need to be taken seriously and analyzed closely, a point that Greger emphasized.

"With anything there are risks," Greger said. "We're talking about implanting a device into the brain. This is something to be done very seriously and carefully. I am excited about this clinical trial, because I do think they are taking it very seriously and very carefully, and hopefully they will get this good data which will just open the door to these treatment applications."

Edited by River Graziano, Sadie Buggle and Shane Brennan

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Hunter RheaScience and Technology Reporter

Hunter Rhea is a writer who grew up in Indianapolis but has also lived in New Orleans as well as Ohio. He is a Technological Leadership major who is currently studying space and interplanetary technology. After graduation, he plans on starting his own studio designing games and devloping new types of technology.

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