Elon Musk said his Neuralink brain chip could one day help treat morbid obesity.
Scientists told Insider this isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.
However, an effective implant is likely more than a decade away.
Elon Musk believes his Neuralink brain chip could help treat morbid obesity. Experts say the billionaire’s dream isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem.
“I don’t think it is any more implausible than other claims for the potential of neurotechnology,” Professor Andrew Jackson, an expert in neural interfaces at Newcastle University, told Insider.
Musk made the suggestion in a TED interview on April 14, thereby adding “morbid obesity” to a growing list of ailments he believes Neuralink could help treat.
Experts interviewed by Insider said a commercially-available obesity-busting brain chip was a long way off but the concept was promising if backed by the right science.
A brain implant to lose weight?
Founded by Musk in 2016, Neuralink is developing a microchip that’s implanted into a person’s skull. Tiny wires equipped with electrodes fan out from the device into the brain, allowing it to read and potentially stimulate brain activity.
Musk has previously named a wide range of neurological disorders he believes Neuralink could treat, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. He’s also made far-fetched claims about the chip potentially “solving autism” and creating “symbiosis” between humans and artificial intelligence.
Beyond Musk’s comments in his recent TED interview, there’s no further information about how Neuralink could help tackle obesity.
Broadly, though, the concept is feasible, Sadaf Farooqi, a professor of metabolism and medicine at the University of Cambridge, said.
“We and others have shown that in some people with severe obesity, it’s the function of a particular brain region, the hypothalamus, that’s really driving often an increase in appetite,” she said.
The hypothalamus is a gland nestled in the center of the brain that has a vital role in the control of hormone production.
“If you could find a way to target that particular region and even those particular neurons that drive appetite, then in theory, a drug or a technology that did that could improve the lives of patients,” Farooqi said.
A brain implant would also be arguably less invasive than other treatments for morbid obesity, Newcastle University’s Jackson said. Some of these treatments involve changing the shape and function of a patient’s digestive system.
Early tests yield mixed results
Some researchers are so confident in brain implant technology that they’ve moved to early proof-of-concept trials on humans – which have garnered mixed results.
One trial involving six people with morbid obesity – defined in the study as a body-mass index above 40 – involved a brain implant that transmitted frequent electric pulses to the hypothalamus. According to Elemental, one participant lost more than 100 pounds, three lost a little weight but not a substantial amount, and the other two lost no weight at all.
In a separate but similar trial, according to Elemental, only one of three participants lost weight. Another small trial is ongoing.
“I would say that these trials are very much at the kind of leading-edge,” Farooqi said. “As a result, they probably have not been that informative.”
“But the fact that they have gone ahead and that there has been a bit of benefit for some people I think is encouraging.”
Treating the symptoms or the cause
Francesco Rubino, chair of metabolic surgery at King’s College London, said brain implant technology was promising but a chip focusingsing on appetite reduction would likely be “set to fail.”
“Anything we have tried until now that was based on that assumption has not been working,” he said.
New research suggests it’s not only the way people eat that makes them overweight. It could also be that the body doesn’t regulate weight properly by burning available fat for energy, Rubino said. “It’s like having a tank full of fuel, but having some sort of functionality so the fuel cannot be utilized efficiencies.”
If you could find the trigger of the disease and target that with an implant, you could cut the problem at the source, Rubino said.
A brain chip that can effectively fight obesity is likely a long way off. Neuralink, for one, has yet to receive approval for human testing and Musk said in his TED interview that once the company can begin implanting chips in brains, it will focus on brain and spinal injuries for “probably a decade.”
Newcastle’s Jackson said that as with many of Neuralink’s claims, “there is still quite a lot of science that would be needed, alongside the technology development, to deliver this as a therapy.”
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