Category Archives: public perceptions

2024 Kavli Prize Laureates: in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience

The Kavli Prize has yet to acquire the lustre of a Nobel Prize (first awarded in 1901 as per its Wikipedia entry). By comparison the Kavli Prize is relatively new (established in 2005 as per its Wikipedia entry) but it appears to be achieving big deal status in the US.

This year’s crop of prize winners was listed in a June 12, 2024 Kavli Foundation news release on EurekAlert,

Eight scientists from three countries are honored for their research that has broadened our understanding of the big, the small and the complex.

June 12, 2024 (Oslo, Norway) — The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters today announced the 2024 Kavli Prize Laureates in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. Eight scientists from three countries are honored for their research that has broadened our understanding of the big, the small and the complex. The laureates in each field will share $1 million USD. 

The 2024 Kavli Prizes recognize groundbreaking science for the discovery and characterization of extra-solar planets and their atmospheres; foundational research integrating synthetic nanoscale materials for biomedical use; and the localization of areas in the brain specialized for face recognition and processing.  

The 2024 Kavli Prize Laureates are:  

  • Kavli Prize in Astrophysics: David Charbonneau (Canada/USA) and Sara Seager (Canada/USA) 
  • Kavli Prize in Nanoscience: Robert S. Langer (USA), Armand Paul Alivisatos (USA) and Chad A. Mirkin (USA) 
  • Kavli Prize in Neuroscience: Nancy Kanwisher (USA), Winrich Freiwald (Germany), and Doris Tsao (USA) 

“The Kavli Prize 2024 honors outstanding researchers doing fundamental science that moves the world forward. They are exploring planets outside our solar system; they have broadened the scientific field of nanoscience towards biomedicine; and they are adding to our understanding of the neurological basis of face recognition,” said Lise Øvreås, president at The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.  

Astrophysics: Searching for life beyond Earth  

The 2024 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics honors Sara Seager and David Charbonneau for discoveries of exoplanets and the characterization of their atmospheres. They pioneered methods for the detection of atomic species in planetary atmospheres and the measurement of their thermal infrared emission, setting the stage for finding the molecular fingerprints of atmospheres around both giant and rocky planets. Their contributions have been key to the enormous progress seen in the last 20 years in the exploration of myriad exo-planets.  

“Humans have always looked towards the stars for discoveries. The pivotal research conducted by Seager and Charbonneau has been an important first step towards finding new planets and strong evidence of life elsewhere in the universe,” remarked Viggo Hansteen, Chair of the Astrophysics Committee.  

David Charbonneau led the team that used the transit method to discover a giant exoplanet (HD 209458b). He pioneered the application of space-based observatories to perform the first studies of the atmosphere of giant extrasolar planets. This new method measures the tiny amount of light blocked by such a planet as it passes in front of its host star. Charbonneau has also used the transit method to study exoplanetary atmospheres, measuring molecular spectra using both filtered starlight and infrared emission from the planets themselves. He demonstrated these two approaches with observations from the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002 and the Spitzer Space Telescope three years later.  

Sara Seager pioneered the theoretical study of planetary atmospheres and predicted the presence of atomic and molecular species detectable by transit spectroscopy, most notably the alkali gases. She predicted how transits could be used to measure atomic and molecular characteristics in exoplanetary atmospheres, which is crucial for identifying biomarkers – signs of life. Seager made outstanding contributions to the understanding of planets with masses below that of Neptune. She also carried out extensive research on starshades – enormous petal-like structures designed to shield space observatories from the glare of a faraway Sun-like star – and was among the first to recognize their importance in detecting and characterizing the faint light from any Earth-like planet orbiting the star. 

Nanoscience: Integrating nanomaterials for biomedical advances 

The 2024 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience honors Robert S. Langer, Armand Paul Alivisatos and Chad A. Mirkin who each revolutionized the field of nanomedicine by demonstrating how engineering nanoscale materials can advance biomedical research and application. Their discoveries contributed foundationally to the development of therapeutics, vaccines, bioimaging and diagnostics.   

“The three scientists, Langer, Alivisatos and Mirkin, have broadened the scientific field of nanoscience, building from fundamental research. By scientific curiosity they have become inventors for the future of nanoscience and biomedicine,” stated Bodil Holst, Chair of the Nanoscience Committee.  

Robert S. Langer was the first to develop nano-engineered materials that enabled the controlled release, or regular flow, of drug molecules. This capability has had an immense impact for the treatment of a range of diseases, such as aggressive brain cancer, prostate cancer and schizophrenia. His work also showed that tiny particles, containing protein antigens, can be used in vaccination, and was instrumental in the development of the delivery of mRNA vaccines. 

Armand Paul Alivisatos demonstrated that semiconductor nanocrystals, or quantum dots (nanoparticles that possess bright, size-dependent light-emitting properties), can be used as multicolor probes in bioimaging. Essential to this achievement was the synthesis of biocompatible nanocrystals. Semiconductor nanocrystals became the basis for the widely used research and diagnostic tools such as live cell tracking, labelling and in vivo imaging. 

Chad A. Mirkin engineered spherical nucleic acids (SNA) using a gold nanoparticle as the core, and a cloud of radially distributed DNA or RNA strands as the shell. He was then able to show how SNAs can be combined to create larger structures and how they can be used in biodiagnostics. His discovery led to the development of fast, automated point-of-care medical diagnostic systems.  

Neuroscience: Understanding recognition of faces 

The 2024 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience honors Nancy Kanwisher, Doris Tsao and Winrich Freiwald for the discovery of a specialized system within the brain to recognize faces. Their discoveries have provided basic principles of neural organization and made the starting point for further research on how the processing of visual information is integrated with other cognitive functions.  

“Kanwisher, Freiwald and Tsao together discovered a localized and specialized neocortical system for face recognition. Their outstanding research will ultimately further our understanding of recognition not only of faces, but objects and scenes,” commented Kristine Walhovd, Chair of the Neuroscience Committee.  

Nancy Kanwisher was the first to prove that a specific area in the human neocortex is dedicated to recognizing faces, now called the fusiform face area. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) she found individual differences in the location of this area and devised an analysis technique to effectively localize specialized functional regions in the brain. This technique is now widely used and applied to domains beyond the face recognition system.  

Elaborating on Kanwisher’s findings, Winrich Freiwald and Doris Tsao studied macaques and mapped out six distinct brain regions, known as the face patch system, including these regions’ functional specialization and how they are connected. By recording the activity of individual brain cells, they revealed how cells in some face patches specialize in faces with particular views.  

Tsao proceeded to identify how the face patches work together to identify a face, through a specific code that enables single cells to identify faces by assembling information of facial features. For example, some cells respond to the presence of hair, others to the distance between the eyes. 

Freiwald uncovered that a separate brain region, called the temporal pole, accelerates our recognition of familiar faces, and that some cells are selectively responsive to familiar faces. 

There’s a video of the official 2024 Kavli Prize announcement which despite the Kavli Foundation being headquartered in California, US, was held (as noted in the news release) at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters where the organization’s president, Lise Øvreås, revealed the 2024 Kavli Prize laureates..(I’ll get back to that choice of location.)

The 2024 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience

There are many posts here featuring work from Robert S. Langer (or Robert Langer), Armand Paul Alivisatos (or Paul Alivisatos or A. Paul Alivisatos) and Chad A. Mirkin (or Chad Mirkin).

Northwestern University (Chicago, Illinois) issued a June 12, 2024 news release (also received via email) by Maria Paul that provides a few more details about the nanoscience winners (main focus: Chad Mirkin), the prize, and the Kavli Foundation. Note: A link has been removed,

Northwestern University nanoscientist Chad Mirkin has been awarded The 2024 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience by The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Mirkin is the first Northwestern scientist to receive the prestigious award.

Mirkin is recognized for his discovery of spherical nucleic acids (SNAs), nanostructures comprised of a nanoparticle core and a shell of radially distributed DNA or RNA strands. These globular forms of nucleic acids have become the cornerstones of the burgeoning fields of nanomedicine and colloidal crystal engineering with DNA. They allow scientists to construct new forms of matter using particle “atoms” as the basic building blocks and DNA “bonds” as particle interconnects, and they are the basis for powerful tools that allow researchers and clinicians to track and treat disease in new ways. In particular, SNAs have led to the development of fast, automated point-of-care medical diagnostic systems and new experimental drugs for treating many forms of cancer, neurological disorders, and diseases of the skin.

Mirkin is one of three laureates in nanoscience recognized by The Norwegian Academy for revolutionizing the field of nanomedicine by demonstrating how engineering nanoscale structures can advance biomedical research and application. The other two are Robert Langer of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Paul Alivisatos of the University of Chicago [emphasis mine]. The scientists’ discoveries “contributed foundationally to the development of therapeutics, vaccines, bioimaging and diagnostics,” The Norwegian Academy said in a release. They will share the $1 million award.

“When I first found out I won The Kavli Prize, there was both excitement but also relief, because I consider Northwestern to be the ultimate center for nanotechnology research,” Mirkin said. “To be recognized with this award, along with my incredible co-awardees, was great validation of what we’ve been trying to do at Northwestern. While I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, the best is yet to come.”

The laureates will be awarded the prize on Sept. 3 during a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, presided over the by The Royal Family. The Kavli Prizes thus far have honored 65 scientists from 13 countries. Ten laureates received the Nobel Prize after receiving The Kavli Prize. [emphasis mine]

“I am thrilled for Chad, for the International Institute for Nanotechnology and for Northwestern,” Northwestern President Michael Schill said. “Chad has earned this prestigious and influential award in a pathbreaking area of science that is aligned with two of the University’s key priorities — to lead in decarbonization, renewable energy and sustainability, and innovating in the biosciences to help prolong lives and make the world a healthier place.

“Through groundbreaking research and hard work, Chad and his team have made Northwestern a leading center for nanotechnology research and investment. The fact that he is sharing this award with President Alivisatos at U of C further emphasizes how the Chicago area has become an international hub for nano research.”

The vision for The Kavli Prize comes from Fred Kavli, a Norwegian-American entrepreneur and philanthropist [emphasis mine] who turned his lifelong fascination with science into a lasting legacy for recognizing scientific breakthroughs and supporting basic research.

Since the first awards in 2008, The Kavli Prize has recognized innovative scientific research — from the discovery of CRISPR-Cas9 to the detection of gravitational waves — transforming our understanding of the big, the small and the complex.

Mirkin’s discovery of SNAs has far-reaching implications for biology and medicine. SNAs, which have no known natural equivalents, interact uniquely with living systems compared to nucleic acids of other forms. Mirkin was the first to synthesize SNAs and elucidate the distinctive chemical and physical properties that underpin their use in transformative techniques and technologies in medicine and the life sciences. This work has led to the development of the first commercialized molecular medical diagnostic systems of the modern nanotechnology era, such as the Food and Drug Administration-cleared Verigene System, used in over half of the world’s top hospitals to detect diseases with high sensitivity and selectivity.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker praised Mirkin for his extraordinary contributions to the field of nanotechnology and how his innovations have helped find solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges.

“Academic institutions in Chicago and across Illinois have become the biggest drivers in nanoscience and technology over the last three decades,” Pritzker said. “Chad Mirkin and his Northwestern colleagues have made outstanding scientific discoveries that change how we view the world around us.”

In 1996, Mirkin created the first SNAs with DNA shells on gold nanoparticle cores. Over the years, he has developed numerous other types of SNAs with other shells and cores, including proteins, liposomes and FDA-approved materials, as well as core-less, hollow structures composed entirely of nucleic acids. These cores impart unique properties to the SNAs, such as optical and magnetic characteristics, while also serving as scaffolds to densely arrange the oligonucleotides, which participate in binding. This dense arrangement gives rise to the novel functional properties that differentiate SNAs from the natural linear and two-dimensional nucleic acids and make them particularly effective in interacting with certain biological structures within cells and tissues. SNAs, unlike conventional DNA and RNA, are naturally taken up by cells without the need for toxic, positively charged co-carriers, making them highly effective in RNA interference (RNAi), antisense gene regulation, and gene editing pathways.

Mirkin’s pioneering work on SNAs has also advanced the development of immunotherapeutics, structures capable of stimulating a patient’s immune response to fight both infectious diseases and certain forms of cancer. Using SNAs, Mirkin has pioneered the concept of rational vaccinology, where he demonstrated that the structure of a vaccine, rather than the components alone, is crucial for dictating its therapeutic effectiveness. This insight and these “structural nanomedicines” have opened new possibilities for developing curative treatments by rearranging known components into more effective structures at the nanoscale. Mirkin founded Flashpoint Therapeutics to commercialize these innovations, focusing on nucleic acid-based nanostructure cancer vaccines. Mirkin also invented the first SNA-based antiviral vaccine, using COVID-19 as a model. These SNAs, featuring the spike protein’s RBD subunit in the core, achieved a 100% survival rate in humanized mice challenged with the live virus. These structures and concepts for designing such vaccines are poised to move vaccine development beyond the current mRNA vaccines.

In addition, Mirkin invented dip-pen nanolithography, initially a technique for molecular writing with nanometer-scale precision that has evolved into a powerful platform for tip-based materials synthesis that, when combined with artificial intelligence, is revolutionizing how materials important for many sectors, especially clean energy, are discovered. Dip-pen nanolithography, which has spurred subsequent techniques that now use tens of millions of tiny tips to rapidly synthesize materials to be explored for such purposes, was recognized by National Geographic as one of the “top 100 scientific discoveries that changed the world.” These innovations are being commercialized by Mattiq, Inc., another venture-backed company Mirkin cofounded. Mirkin and his students also invented high-area rapid printing, an additive manufacturing technology, that is being commercialized by Azul 3D and being used to disrupt the microelectronics and optical lens industries.

Mirkin’s research has progressed SNA drugs through seven human clinical trials so far for treating various cancers, including glioblastoma multiforme and Merkel cell carcinoma. One SNA drug has shown remarkable potential in stimulating the immune system, proving effective in models of breast, colorectal and bladder cancers, lymphoma and melanoma. This drug has achieved complete tumor elimination in a subset of patients with Merkel cell carcinoma during Phase 1b/2 clinical trials, earning FDA fast-track and orphan drug status. It was recently licensed to Bluejay Therapeutics to treat hepatitis.

In 2000, Mirkin founded the International Institute for Nanotechnology (IIN) at Northwestern University, which he also directs. Research at the IIN has led to over 2,000 new commercial products sold globally and the creation of more than 40 startup companies. The IIN has collectively brought together over $1.2 billion to support research, education and infrastructure at Northwestern since its inception.

Mirkin is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry and a professor of medicine, chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering, and materials science and engineering at Northwestern. He is among an elite group of scientists elected to all three branches of the U.S. National Academies — the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Mirkin served on President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology for eight years.

Congratulations to all of the winners in all of the categories!

As for the Norway announcement, it makes a bit of sense given that Fred Kavli was a Norwegian American. However, it’s a little hard to avoid the suspicion that there might be some regional and prize rivalry between Norway with its Kavli and Sweden its Nobel..

Trust in science remains high but public questions scientists’ adherence to science’s norms

A March 4, 2024 Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania news release (also on EurekAlert and received via email) announces research into public trust in science in the US,

Science is one of the most highly regarded institutions in America, with nearly three-quarters of the public expressing “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in scientists. But confidence in science has nonetheless declined over the past few years, since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, as it has for most other major social institutions.

In a new article, members of the Strategic Council of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM] examine what has happened to public confidence in science, why it has happened, and what can be done to elevate it. The researchers write that while there is broad public agreement about the values that should underpin science, the public questions whether scientists actually live up to these values and whether they can overcome their individual biases.

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), relies in part on new data being released in connection with this article by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania. The data come from the Annenberg Science Knowledge (ASK) survey conducted February 22-28, 2023, with an empaneled, nationally representative sample of 1,638 U.S. adults who were asked about their views on scientists and science. The margin of error for the entire sample is ± 3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. (See the paper for the findings.) The survey is directed by APPC director Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a member of the Strategic Council and a co-author of the PNAS paper.

Decline in confidence comparable to other institutions

The researchers also examine trends in public confidence in science dating back 20 years from other sources, including the Pew Research Center and the General Social Survey of National Opinion Research at the University of Chicago. These show a recent decline consistent with the decline seen for other institutions.

“We’re of the view that trust has to be earned,” said lead author Arthur Lupia, a member of the NASEM’s Strategic Council for Research Excellence, Integrity, and Trust, and associate vice president for research at the University of Michigan. “We wanted to understand how trust in science is changing, and why, and is there anything that the scientific enterprise can do to regain trust?”

Highlights

“Confidence in science is high relative to nearly all other civic, cultural, and government institutions…,” the article states. In addition:

  • The public has high levels of confidence in scientists’ competence, trustworthiness, and honesty – 84% of survey respondents in February 2023 are very or somewhat confident that scientists provide the public with trustworthy information in the scientists’ area of inquiry.
  • Many in the public question whether scientists share their values and whether scientists can overcome their own biases. For instance, when asked whether scientists will or will not publish findings if a study’s results run counter to the interests of the organization running the study, 70% said scientists will not publish the findings.
  • The public has “consistent beliefs about how scientists should act and beliefs that support their confidence in science despite their concerns about scientists’ possible biases and distortive incentives.” For example, 84% of U.S. adults say it is somewhat or very important for scientists to disclose their funders and 92% say it is somewhat or very important that scientists be open to changing their minds based on new evidence.
  • However, when asked about scientists’ biases, just over half of U.S. adults (53%) say scientists provide the public with unbiased conclusions about their area of inquiry and just 42% say scientists generally are “able to overcome their human and political biases.”

Beyond measurements of trust in science

The Annenberg Public Policy Center’s ASK survey in February 2023 asked U.S. adults more nuanced questions about attitudes toward scientists.

“We’ve developed measures beyond trust or confidence in science in order to understand why some in the public are less supportive of science and scientists than others,” said Jamieson, who is also a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. “Perceptions of whether scientists share one’s values, overcome their human and political biases, and correct mistakes are important as well.”

The ASK survey of U.S. adults found, for instance, that 81% regard scientists as competent, 70% as trustworthy, and 68% as honest, but only 42% say scientists “share my values.”

A more detailed analysis of the variables and effects seen in Annenberg’s surveys was published in September 2023 in PNAS in the paper “Factors Assessing Science’s Self-Presentation model and their effect on conservatives’ and liberals’ support for funding science.”

Confidence in science and Covid-19 vaccination status

The research published in PNAS was initiated by members of the NASEM’s Strategic Council for Research Excellence, Integrity, and Trust, which was established in 2021 to advance the integrity, ethics, resilience, and effectiveness of the research enterprise.

Lupia said the Strategic Council’s conversations about whether trust in science was declining and if so, why, began during the pandemic. “There was great science behind the Covid-19 vaccine, so why was the idea of people taking it so controversial?” he asked. “Covid deaths were so visible and yet the controversy over the vaccine was also so visible – kind of an icon of the public-health implications of declining trust in science.”

The article cites research from the Annenberg Public Policy Center that found important relationships between science-based forms of trust and the willingness to take a Covid-19 vaccine. Data from waves of another APPC survey of U.S. adults in five swing states during the 2020 campaign season – reported in a 2021 article in PNAS – showed that from July 2020 to February 2021, U.S. adults’ trust in health authorities was a significant predictor of the reported intention to get the Covid-19 vaccine. See the article “The role of non-COVID-specific and COVID-specific factors in predicting a shift in willingness to vaccinate: A panel study.”

How to raise confidence in science

Raising public confidence in science, the researchers write, “should not be premised on the assumption that society would be better off with higher levels of uncritical trust in the scientific community. Indeed, uncritical trust in science would violate the scientific norm of organized skepticism and be antithetical to science’s culture of challenge, critique, and self-correction.”

“Instead,” they propose, “researchers, scientific organizations, and the scientific community writ large need to redouble their commitment to conduct, communicate, critique, and – when error is found or misconduct detected – correct the published record in ways that both merit and earn public confidence.”

The data cited in the paper, they conclude, “suggest that the scientific community’s commitment to core values such as the culture of critique and correction, peer review, acknowledging limitations in data and methods, precise specification of key terms, and faithful accounts of evidence in every step of scientific practice and in every engagement with the public may help sustain confidence in scientific findings.”

“Trends in U.S. Public Confidence in Science and Opportunities for Progress” was published March 4, 2024, in PNAS. In addition to Jamieson and Lupia, the authors are David B. Allison, dean of the School of Public Health, Indiana University; Jennifer Heimberg, of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of the journal Nature; and Susan M. Wolf, of the University of Minnesota Law and Medical Schools. Allison is co-chair of the National Academies’ Strategic Council; Lupia, Jamieson, Skipper, and Wolf are members of the Council, and Heimberg is the director of the Council.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Trends in U.S. public confidence in science and opportunities for progress by Arthur Lupia, David B. Allison, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, and Susan M. Wolf. PNAS March 4, 2024 121 (11) e2319488121 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2319488121

This paper is open access.

Neural (brain) implants and hype (long read)

There was a big splash a few weeks ago when it was announced that Neuralink’s (Elon Musk company) brain implant had been surgically inserted into its first human patient.

Getting approval

David Tuffley, senior lecturer in Applied Ethics & CyberSecurity at Griffith University (Australia), provides a good overview of the road Neuralink took to getting FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) approval for human clinical trials in his May 29, 2023 essay for The Conversation, Note: Links have been removed,

Since its founding in 2016, Elon Musk’s neurotechnology company Neuralink has had the ambitious mission to build a next-generation brain implant with at least 100 times more brain connections than devices currently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The company has now reached a significant milestone, having received FDA approval to begin human trials. So what were the issues keeping the technology in the pre-clinical trial phase for as long as it was? And have these concerns been addressed?

Neuralink is making a Class III medical device known as a brain-computer interface (BCI). The device connects the brain to an external computer via a Bluetooth signal, enabling continuous communication back and forth.

The device itself is a coin-sized unit called a Link. It’s implanted within a small disk-shaped cutout in the skull using a precision surgical robot. The robot splices a thousand tiny threads from the Link to certain neurons in the brain. [emphasis mine] Each thread is about a quarter the diameter of a human hair.

The company says the device could enable precise control of prosthetic limbs, giving amputees natural motor skills. It could revolutionise treatment for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and spinal cord injuries. It also shows some promise for potential treatment of obesity, autism, depression, schizophrenia and tinnitus.

Several other neurotechnology companies and researchers have already developed BCI technologies that have helped people with limited mobility regain movement and complete daily tasks.

In February 2021, Musk said Neuralink was working with the FDA to secure permission to start initial human trials later that year. But human trials didn’t commence in 2021.

Then, in March 2022, Neuralink made a further application to the FDA to establish its readiness to begin humans trials.

One year and three months later, on May 25 2023, Neuralink finally received FDA approval for its first human clinical trial. Given how hard Neuralink has pushed for permission to begin, we can assume it will begin very soon. [emphasis mine]

The approval has come less than six months after the US Office of the Inspector General launched an investigation into Neuralink over potential animal welfare violations. [emphasis mine]

In accessible language, Tuffley goes on to discuss the FDA’s specific technical issues with implants and how they were addressed in his May 29, 2023 essay.

More about how Neuralink’s implant works and some concerns

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) journalist Andrew Chang offers an almost 13 minute video, “Neuralink brain chip’s first human patient. How does it work?” Chang is a little overenthused for my taste but he offers some good information about neural implants, along with informative graphics in his presentation.

So, Tuffley was right about Neuralink getting ready quickly for human clinical trials as you can guess from the title of Chang’s CBC video.

Jennifer Korn announced that recruitment had started in her September 20, 2023 article for CNN (Cable News Network), Note: Links have been removed,

Elon Musk’s controversial biotechnology startup Neuralink opened up recruitment for its first human clinical trial Tuesday, according to a company blog.

After receiving approval from an independent review board, Neuralink is set to begin offering brain implants to paralysis patients as part of the PRIME Study, the company said. PRIME, short for Precise Robotically Implanted Brain-Computer Interface, is being carried out to evaluate both the safety and functionality of the implant.

Trial patients will have a chip surgically placed in the part of the brain that controls the intention to move. The chip, installed by a robot, will then record and send brain signals to an app, with the initial goal being “to grant people the ability to control a computer cursor or keyboard using their thoughts alone,” the company wrote.

Those with quadriplegia [sometimes known as tetraplegia] due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) may qualify for the six-year-long study – 18 months of at-home and clinic visits followed by follow-up visits over five years. Interested people can sign up in the patient registry on Neuralink’s website.

Musk has been working on Neuralink’s goal of using implants to connect the human brain to a computer for five years, but the company so far has only tested on animals. The company also faced scrutiny after a monkey died in project testing in 2022 as part of efforts to get the animal to play Pong, one of the first video games.

I mentioned three Reuters investigative journalists who were reporting on Neuralink’s animal abuse allegations (emphasized in Tuffley’s essay) in a July 7, 2023 posting, “Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology on July 13, 2023 led by UNESCO.” Later that year, Neuralink was cleared by the US Department of Agriculture (see September 24,, 2023 article by Mahnoor Jehangir for BNN Breaking).

Plus, Neuralink was being investigated over more allegations according to a February 9, 2023 article by Rachel Levy for Reuters, this time regarding hazardous pathogens,

The U.S. Department of Transportation said on Thursday it is investigating Elon Musk’s brain-implant company Neuralink over the potentially illegal movement of hazardous pathogens.

A Department of Transportation spokesperson told Reuters about the probe after the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an animal-welfare advocacy group,wrote to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, opens new tab earlier on Thursday to alert it of records it obtained on the matter.

PCRM said it obtained emails and other documents that suggest unsafe packaging and movement of implants removed from the brains of monkeys. These implants may have carried infectious diseases in violation of federal law, PCRM said.

There’s an update about the hazardous materials in the next section. Spoiler alert, the company got fined.

Neuralink’s first human implant

A January 30, 2024 article (Associated Press with files from Reuters) on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) online news webspace heralded the latest about Neurlink’s human clinical trials,

The first human patient received an implant from Elon Musk’s computer-brain interface company Neuralink over the weekend, the billionaire says.

In a post Monday [January 29, 2024] on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Musk said that the patient received the implant the day prior and was “recovering well.” He added that “initial results show promising neuron spike detection.”

Spikes are activity by neurons, which the National Institutes of Health describe as cells that use electrical and chemical signals to send information around the brain and to the body.

The billionaire, who owns X and co-founded Neuralink, did not provide additional details about the patient.

When Neuralink announced in September [2023] that it would begin recruiting people, the company said it was searching for individuals with quadriplegia due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Neuralink reposted Musk’s Monday [January 29, 2024] post on X, but did not publish any additional statements acknowledging the human implant. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press or Reuters on Tuesday [January 30, 2024].

In a separate Monday [January 29, 2024] post on X, Musk said that the first Neuralink product is called “Telepathy” — which, he said, will enable users to control their phones or computers “just by thinking.” He said initial users would be those who have lost use of their limbs.

The startup’s PRIME Study is a trial for its wireless brain-computer interface to evaluate the safety of the implant and surgical robot.

Now for the hazardous materials, January 30, 2024 article, Note: A link has been removed,

Earlier this month [January 2024], a Reuters investigation found that Neuralink was fined for violating U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rules regarding the movement of hazardous materials. During inspections of the company’s facilities in Texas and California in February 2023, DOT investigators found the company had failed to register itself as a transporter of hazardous material.

They also found improper packaging of hazardous waste, including the flammable liquid Xylene. Xylene can cause headaches, dizziness, confusion, loss of muscle co-ordination and even death, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The records do not say why Neuralink would need to transport hazardous materials or whether any harm resulted from the violations.

Skeptical thoughts about Elon Musk and Neuralink

Earlier this month (February 2024), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) published an article by health reporters, Jim Reed and Joe McFadden, that highlights the history of brain implants, the possibilities, and notes some of Elon Musk’s more outrageous claims for Neuralink’s brain implants,

Elon Musk is no stranger to bold claims – from his plans to colonise Mars to his dreams of building transport links underneath our biggest cities. This week the world’s richest man said his Neuralink division had successfully implanted its first wireless brain chip into a human.

Is he right when he says this technology could – in the long term – save the human race itself?

Sticking electrodes into brain tissue is really nothing new.

In the 1960s and 70s electrical stimulation was used to trigger or suppress aggressive behaviour in cats. By the early 2000s monkeys were being trained to move a cursor around a computer screen using just their thoughts.

“It’s nothing novel, but implantable technology takes a long time to mature, and reach a stage where companies have all the pieces of the puzzle, and can really start to put them together,” says Anne Vanhoestenberghe, professor of active implantable medical devices, at King’s College London.

Neuralink is one of a growing number of companies and university departments attempting to refine and ultimately commercialise this technology. The focus, at least to start with, is on paralysis and the treatment of complex neurological conditions.

Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article describes a few of the other brain implant efforts, Note: Links have been removed,

One of its [Neuralink’s] main rivals, a start-up called Synchron backed by funding from investment firms controlled by Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, has already implanted its stent-like device into 10 patients.

Back in December 2021, Philip O’Keefe, a 62-year old Australian who lives with a form of motor neurone disease, composed the first tweet using just his thoughts to control a cursor.

And researchers at Lausanne University in Switzerland have shown it is possible for a paralysed man to walk again by implanting multiple devices to bypass damage caused by a cycling accident.

In a research paper published this year, they demonstrated a signal could be beamed down from a device in his brain to a second device implanted at the base of his spine, which could then trigger his limbs to move.

Some people living with spinal injuries are sceptical about the sudden interest in this new kind of technology.

“These breakthroughs get announced time and time again and don’t seem to be getting any further along,” says Glyn Hayes, who was paralysed in a motorbike accident in 2017, and now runs public affairs for the Spinal Injuries Association.

If I could have anything back, it wouldn’t be the ability to walk. It would be putting more money into a way of removing nerve pain, for example, or ways to improve bowel, bladder and sexual function.” [emphasis mine]

Musk, however, is focused on something far more grand for Neuralink implants, from Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article, Note: A link has been removed,

But for Elon Musk, “solving” brain and spinal injuries is just the first step for Neuralink.

The longer-term goal is “human/AI symbiosis” [emphasis mine], something he describes as “species-level important”.

Musk himself has already talked about a future where his device could allow people to communicate with a phone or computer “faster than a speed typist or auctioneer”.

In the past, he has even said saving and replaying memories may be possible, although he recognised “this is sounding increasingly like a Black Mirror episode.”

One of the experts quoted in Reed and McFadden’s February 2024 BBC article asks a pointed question,

… “At the moment, I’m struggling to see an application that a consumer would benefit from, where they would take the risk of invasive surgery,” says Prof Vanhoestenberghe.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, would you risk brain surgery just to be able to order a pizza on your phone?”

Rae Hodge’s February 11, 2024 article about Elon Musk and his hyped up Neuralink implant for Salon is worth reading in its entirety but for those who don’t have the time or need a little persuading, here are a few excerpts, Note 1: This is a warning; Hodge provides more detail about the animal cruelty allegations; Note 2: Links have been removed,

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. [2024 Super Bowl LVIII]

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).”

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. 

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.” 

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.

There have been other examples of Musk’s grandiosity. Notably, David Lee expressed skepticism about hyperloop in his August 13, 2013 article for BBC news online

Is Elon Musk’s Hyperloop just a pipe dream?

Much like the pun in the headline, the bright idea of transporting people using some kind of vacuum-like tube is neither new nor imaginative.

There was Robert Goddard, considered the “father of modern rocket propulsion”, who claimed in 1909 that his vacuum system could suck passengers from Boston to New York at 1,200mph.

And then there were Soviet plans for an amphibious monorail  – mooted in 1934  – in which two long pods would start their journey attached to a metal track before flying off the end and slipping into the water like a two-fingered Kit Kat dropped into some tea.

So ever since inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk hit the world’s media with his plans for the Hyperloop, a healthy dose of scepticism has been in the air.

“This is by no means a new idea,” says Rod Muttram, formerly of Bombardier Transportation and Railtrack.

“It has been previously suggested as a possible transatlantic transport system. The only novel feature I see is the proposal to put the tubes above existing roads.”

Here’s the latest I’ve found on hyperloop, from the Hyperloop Wikipedia entry,

As of 2024, some companies continued to pursue technology development under the hyperloop moniker, however, one of the biggest, well funded players, Hyperloop One, declared bankruptcy and ceased operations in 2023.[15]

Musk is impatient and impulsive as noted in a September 12, 2023 posting by Mike Masnick on Techdirt, Note: A link has been removed,

The Batshit Crazy Story Of The Day Elon Musk Decided To Personally Rip Servers Out Of A Sacramento Data Center

Back on Christmas Eve [December 24, 2022] of last year there were some reports that Elon Musk was in the process of shutting down Twitter’s Sacramento data center. In that article, a number of ex-Twitter employees were quoted about how much work it would be to do that cleanly, noting that there’s a ton of stuff hardcoded in Twitter code referring to that data center (hold that thought).

That same day, Elon tweeted out that he had “disconnected one of the more sensitive server racks.”

Masnick follows with a story of reckless behaviour from someone who should have known better.

Ethics of implants—where to look for more information

While Musk doesn’t use the term when he describes a “human/AI symbiosis” (presumably by way of a neural implant), he’s talking about a cyborg. Here’s a 2018 paper, which looks at some of the implications,

Do you want to be a cyborg? The moderating effect of ethics on neural implant acceptance by Eva Reinares-Lara, Cristina Olarte-Pascual, and Jorge Pelegrín-Borondo. Computers in Human Behavior Volume 85, August 2018, Pages 43-53 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.03.032

This paper is open access.

Getting back to Neuralink, I have two blog posts that discuss the company and the ethics of brain implants from way back in 2021.

First, there’s Jazzy Benes’ March 1, 2021 posting on the Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics blog. It stands out as it includes a discussion of the disabled community’s issues, Note: Links have been removed,

In the heart of Silicon Valley we are constantly enticed by the newest technological advances. With the big influencers Grimes [a Canadian musician and the mother of three children with Elon Musk] and Lil Uzi Vert publicly announcing their willingness to become experimental subjects for Elon Musk’s Neuralink brain implantation device, we are left wondering if future technology will actually give us “the knowledge of the Gods.” Is it part of the natural order for humans to become omniscient beings? Who will have access to the devices? What other ethical considerations must be discussed before releasing such technology to the public?

A significant issue that arises from developing technologies for the disabled community is the assumption that disabled persons desire the abilities of what some abled individuals may define as “normal.” Individuals with disabilities may object to technologies intended to make them fit an able-bodied norm. “Normal” is relative to each individual, and it could be potentially harmful to use a deficit view of disability, which means judging a disability as a deficiency. However, this is not to say that all disabled individuals will reject a technology that may enhance their abilities. Instead, I believe it is a consideration that must be recognized when developing technologies for the disabled community, and it can only be addressed through communication with disabled persons. As a result, I believe this is a conversation that must be had with the community for whom the technology is developed–disabled persons.

With technologies that aim to address disabilities, we walk a fine line between therapeutics and enhancement. Though not the first neural implant medical device, the Link may have been the first BCI system openly discussed for its potential transhumanism uses, such as “enhanced cognitive abilities, memory storage and retrieval, gaming, telepathy, and even symbiosis with machines.” …

Benes also discusses transhumanism, privacy issues, and consent issues. It’s a thoughtful reading experience.

Second is a July 9, 2021 posting by anonymous on the University of California at Berkeley School of Information blog which provides more insight into privacy and other issues associated with data collection (and introduced me to the concept of decisional interference),

As the development of microchips furthers and advances in neuroscience occur, the possibility for seamless brain-machine interfaces, where a device decodes inputs from the user’s brain to perform functions, becomes more of a reality. These various forms of these technologies already exist. However, technological advances have made implantable and portable devices possible. Imagine a future where humans don’t need to talk to each other, but rather can transmit their thoughts directly to another person. This idea is the eventual goal of Elon Musk, the founder of Neuralink. Currently, Neuralink is one of the main companies involved in the advancement of this type of technology. Analysis of the Neuralink’s technology and their overall mission statement provide an interesting insight into the future of this type of human-computer interface and the potential privacy and ethical concerns with this technology.

As this technology further develops, several privacy and ethical concerns come into question. To begin, using Solove’s Taxonomy as a privacy framework, many areas of potential harm are revealed. In the realm of information collection, there is much risk. Brain-computer interfaces, depending on where they are implanted, could have access to people’s most private thoughts and emotions. This information would need to be transmitted to another device for processing. The collection of this information by companies such as advertisers would represent a major breach of privacy. Additionally, there is risk to the user from information processing. These devices must work concurrently with other devices and often wirelessly. Given the widespread importance of cloud computing in much of today’s technology, offloading information from these devices to the cloud would be likely. Having the data stored in a database puts the user at the risk of secondary use if proper privacy policies are not implemented. The trove of information stored within the information collected from the brain is vast. These datasets could be combined with existing databases such as browsing history on Google to provide third parties with unimaginable context on individuals. Lastly, there is risk for information dissemination, more specifically, exposure. The information collected and processed by these devices would need to be stored digitally. Keeping such private information, even if anonymized, would be a huge potential for harm, as the contents of the information may in itself be re-identifiable to a specific individual. Lastly there is risk for invasions such as decisional interference. Brain-machine interfaces would not only be able to read information in the brain but also write information. This would allow the device to make potential emotional changes in its users, which be a major example of decisional interference. …

For the most recent Neuralink and brain implant ethics piece, there’s this February 14, 2024 essay on The Conversation, which, unusually, for this publication was solicited by the editors, Note: Links have been removed,

In January 2024, Musk announced that Neuralink implanted its first chip in a human subject’s brain. The Conversation reached out to two scholars at the University of Washington School of Medicine – Nancy Jecker, a bioethicst, and Andrew Ko, a neurosurgeon who implants brain chip devices – for their thoughts on the ethics of this new horizon in neuroscience.

Information about the implant, however, is scarce, aside from a brochure aimed at recruiting trial subjects. Neuralink did not register at ClinicalTrials.gov, as is customary, and required by some academic journals. [all emphases mine]

Some scientists are troubled by this lack of transparency. Sharing information about clinical trials is important because it helps other investigators learn about areas related to their research and can improve patient care. Academic journals can also be biased toward positive results, preventing researchers from learning from unsuccessful experiments.

Fellows at the Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank, have warned that Musk’s brand of “science by press release, while increasingly common, is not science. [emphases mine]” They advise against relying on someone with a huge financial stake in a research outcome to function as the sole source of information.

When scientific research is funded by government agencies or philanthropic groups, its aim is to promote the public good. Neuralink, on the other hand, embodies a private equity model [emphasis mine], which is becoming more common in science. Firms pooling funds from private investors to back science breakthroughs may strive to do good, but they also strive to maximize profits, which can conflict with patients’ best interests.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture investigated animal cruelty at Neuralink, according to a Reuters report, after employees accused the company of rushing tests and botching procedures on test animals in a race for results. The agency’s inspection found no breaches, according to a letter from the USDA secretary to lawmakers, which Reuters reviewed. However, the secretary did note an “adverse surgical event” in 2019 that Neuralink had self-reported.

In a separate incident also reported by Reuters, the Department of Transportation fined Neuralink for violating rules about transporting hazardous materials, including a flammable liquid.

…the possibility that the device could be increasingly shown to be helpful for people with disabilities, but become unavailable due to loss of research funding. For patients whose access to a device is tied to a research study, the prospect of losing access after the study ends can be devastating. [emphasis mine] This raises thorny questions about whether it is ever ethical to provide early access to breakthrough medical interventions prior to their receiving full FDA approval.

Not registering a clinical trial would seem to suggest there won’t be much oversight. As for Musk’s “science by press release” activities, I hope those will be treated with more skepticism by mainstream media although that seems unlikely given the current situation with journalism (more about that in a future post).

As for the issues associated with private equity models for science research and the problem of losing access to devices after a clinical trial is ended, my April 5, 2022 posting, “Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy (long read)” offers some cautionary tales, in addition to being the most comprehensive piece I’ve published on ethics and brain implants.

My July 17, 2023 posting, “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report” offers a brief overview of the international scene.