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Elon Musk Says a Human Patient Has Received Neuralink’s Brain Implant

Elon Musk Says a Human Patient Has Received Neuralink’s Brain Implant

Elon Musk said on the social media platform X on Monday that the first human patient has received a brain implant developed by his company Neuralink.

After years of delays, Neuralink started recruiting patients for a clinical trial in the fall after receiving approval from the US Food and Drug Administration and a hospital ethics board. The company is developing a device called a brain-computer interface.

Musk has said that Neuralink’s ultimate goal is to “achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” but for now he’s starting with a far more modest aim: allowing paralyzed people to control a cursor or keyboard with their brains. In a brochure about the study, Neuralink says it is recruiting participants with quadriplegia, or paralysis in all four limbs, due to cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and that are at least 22 years old. It anticipates the study will take six years to complete.

In its brochure, the company says it will use a surgical robot it developed to place the implant into a region of the brain that controls movement intention. Once in place, the coin-sized device is designed to record and transmit brain signals wirelessly to an app that decodes those signals.

In his post on Monday, Musk added that the patient was “recovering well” and that “initial results show promising neuron spike detection.” But it could be months before we know whether the patient can successfully use the implant to control a computer or other device. The person will have to recover from surgery, and training someone to use a BCI can take several weeks.

The Neuralink patient is far from the first to get a BCI. A few dozen people around the world have been outfitted with the devices as part of research studies. The first, Matt Nagle, did so in 2004. Over the years, these systems have allowed paralyzed people to play video games, move robotic arms, and write emails using just their thoughts.

Until recently, BCIs were largely pursued by academic labs. They required clunky setups using thick cables that made them impractical to use at home. Neuralink’s system is designed to be wireless and records neural activity through more than 1,000 electrodes distributed across 64 threads, each thinner than a human hair. The most common device used in BCI research, the Utah array, records from 100 electrodes.

The company has also been beset by controversy, particularly around its treatment of research animals. A WIRED investigation in September detailed how some of its monkeys died as a result of the company’s brain implant testing. The company is reportedly facing a federal investigation related to its treatment of animal subjects. And this month, a Reuters report revealed that Neuralink was fined for violating US Department of Transportation rules regarding the movement of hazardous materials.

Since Neuralink’s founding in 2016, a handful of companies have emerged to commercialize these systems. One competitor, New York–based Synchron, has not only beat Neuralink to implanting its BCI in people but has shown that its device is safe and allows patients with paralysis to browse the web and do online shopping and banking while at home.

Neuralink has not specified where the trial is taking place or how many patients will be included. The company has set up a patient registry for potential participants to learn whether they qualify for the study. It has not registered with ClinicalTrials.gov, a central database with information on clinical studies funded or sponsored by industry and government agencies.

Right now, the only details available on the Neuralink surgery come from a single Musk tweet. While it may not move the needle on merging humans with AI, it would represent a critical milestone for a promising device.

The FDA Approves Weight Loss Drug Zepbound, a Wegovy and Ozempic Rival

The FDA Approves Weight Loss Drug Zepbound, a Wegovy and Ozempic Rival

The blockbuster weight loss drug Wegovy has a new rival. Today, the US Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug for weight management called Zepbound, made by American pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.

The weekly injectable drug is meant for adults who are overweight or obese and have at least one weight-related condition, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, or high cholesterol. The active ingredient in Zepbound, tirzepatide, is already approved under the brand name Mounjaro to help improve blood sugar in adults with type 2 diabetes and is widely prescribed off-label for weight loss.

Zepbound and Mounjaro are similar to the better-known Wegovy and Ozempic, which are both manufactured by Danish company Novo Nordisk. All of these drugs mimic a naturally occurring hormone in the body called GLP-1. Produced in the gut, GLP-1 lowers blood sugar, slows the emptying of the stomach, and regulates appetite. Zepbound and Mounjaro also act on a similar hormone called GIP to reduce food intake.

GLP-1 drugs were initially developed to treat type 2 diabetes but are increasingly being used for weight loss. (Wegovy is indicated for weight management and Ozempic for diabetes, although it can be prescribed off-label for weight management as well.) Approximately 70 percent of American adults have obesity or are overweight, and many of those who are overweight have a weight-related health condition.

Thanks to rising demand for these drugs, Ozempic and Wegovy have been on the FDA’s drug shortage list since March 2022. With demand outstripping production, Novo Nordisk has tried to limit the number of new people who can start taking Wegovy. The drug comes in preloaded injector pens containing different doses, and patients must start out with a low-dose pen before gradually stepping up to higher doses. The drugmaker is restricting supply of those low-dose injections so it can focus on serving current patients as it works to boost production capacity.

With the FDA’s approval of Zepbound, people seeking to lose weight now have another option. Like Ozempic and Wegovy, it is also started at a low dose and gradually increased.

Zepbound’s approval was based on trials run by Eli Lilly that included 2,539 adults with obesity or excess weight and weight-related medical problems other than diabetes, according to the company. In those studies, people taking Zepbound who also made diet and exercise changes experienced substantial weight loss at 72 weeks compared with those on a placebo. At the highest dose of 15 milligrams, people taking Zepbound lost an average of 48 pounds. At the lowest dose of 5 milligrams, people lost an average of 34. Those taking a placebo lost seven pounds, on average.

One in three patients taking Zepbound at the highest dose lost over 58 pounds, or 25 percent of their body weight, compared to 1.5 percent on placebo, according to Eli Lilly. The average starting weight of the volunteers in the trial was 231 pounds.

Some people taking Zepbound reported gastrointestinal reactions, including nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, or abdominal pain, according to the company.

In a statement, Eli Lilly representatives wrote that Zepbound is expected to be available in the US by the end of the year at a list price of $1,059.87 per month. Wegovy costs about $1,349 a month without insurance. Though insurance typically covers the cost of diabetes treatments, it may not cover drugs for weight management. Eli Lilly’s announcement says the company is putting a commercial savings card program in place to help people who may benefit from Zepbound access it.

Drugmakers are already working on pill versions of GLP-1 drugs, which could make them even more attractive to patients. And with new data expected to be unveiled at this weekend’s American Heart Association meeting on the cardiovascular benefits of these drugs, demand could surge even more.

How to Make a Pig Heart Transplant Last in a Person

How to Make a Pig Heart Transplant Last in a Person

With any organ transplant, doctors are trying to balance how to prevent infections while tamping down the immune system. Without immunosuppressive drugs, the transplant organ will be rejected. But giving patients too much of these drugs makes them susceptible to infections.

That’s what researchers think happened in Bennett’s case. To treat the CMV infection, doctors gave Bennett a therapy called intravenous immunoglobulin, which is meant for patients with compromised immune systems, including transplant patients. A concentrated pool of antibodies from thousands of human donors, the treatment likely contained natural antibodies that attacked the pig organ and damaged muscle cells.

The Maryland doctors are taking different steps to prevent Faucette’s new heart from being rejected. For one, they told WIRED in December that they had developed a new, more sensitive test to detect very small amounts of pig virus DNA. Before the latest transplant, they tested the donor pig regularly for CMV and other porcine viruses, as well as bacteria and parasites. “At the present time, we have no reason to believe this donor pig is infected with porcine PCMV, which is the virus that was identified in our first xenotransplant recipient,” a university spokesperson told WIRED in an email.

Doctors are treating Faucette with traditional immunosuppressive drugs, along with an investigational antibody therapy called tegoprubart, developed by California biotech company Eledon Pharmaceuticals. The drug works by blocking CD154, a protein involved in immune rejection, and is given via IV every three weeks. Like other immunosuppressive drugs, Faucette must receive it for the rest of his life to prevent his new heart from being rejected. “When you block this receptor, it’s very, very effective to prevent transplant rejection,” says Steve Perrin, Eledon’s president and chief scientific officer.

When the Maryland surgeons performed Bennett’s transplant in January 2022, they didn’t have access to Eledon’s drug because it had not yet been tested in humans. Now, more than 100 people have received the drug in early clinical trials. Tegoprubart has also been tested in non-human primates and has been shown to increase the life of transplanted pig organs in those animals.

The next few weeks will be crucial to determine whether the transplanted pig heart will continue to function normally. “I’m hopeful that this will be the correct regimen for the patient and that he will be able to live a long life with the xenograft,” says Jayme Locke, an abdominal transplant surgeon at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who wasn’t involved in the heart cases. In August, Locke’s team published a study showing that a genetically modified pig kidney functioned normally in a brain-dead patient for a week.

In a separate xenotransplant experiment, a team at NYU Langone announced earlier this month that it kept a pig kidney working for two months in a brain-dead person.

The US Food and Drug Administration granted emergency approval for Faucette’s surgery earlier this month through its “compassionate use” pathway. This process, which was also used for Bennett’s transplant, is applied when an unapproved medical product—in this case, the genetically modified pig heart—is the only option for a patient with a serious or life-threatening condition.

Pierson thinks these individual cases of pig-to-human transplants will help generate evidence needed for more formal clinical trials that will include multiple patients. He is optimistic that a pig heart will function longer in this second patient. “Full stop,” he says. “It may not work every time we do it, but we’re going to learn a lot from these one-offs.”

The Age of Flames Reaches the US East Coast

The Age of Flames Reaches the US East Coast

Smoke from wildfires in Canada has engulfed the East Coast, cloaking cities in a hazy smog and putting some 100 million people under air quality alerts. More than 400 fires are burning in British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec, and Ontario, and half are uncontrolled. New York City became home to the worst air quality in the world. Philadelphia has also issued a code red alert, advising people to stay indoors, and the plumes may continue inundating the region for several more days to come, with the smoke stretching through Washington, DC and down to Atlanta, Georgia.

In the United States, supercharged wildfires once seemed like a uniquely West Coast problem, like the 2018 Camp Fire which obliterated the California town of Paradise. A range of factors contributed to that massive blaze, including the region’s legacy of fire suppression, which allowed dead brush to pile up. Climate change means hotter temperatures dry that brush out, so it burns catastrophically. That’s also the problem in Canada right now. The number of fires for this time of year has only increased slightly above the average, but “the size of the fires and the intensity of fires has significantly increased,” says Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. 

In other words: East Coast, welcome to the Pyrocene, or the Age of Flames, as fire historian Stephen Pyne calls it. Climate change and human meddling in the landscape have combined to make wildfires bigger and more intense, big enough to send clouds of toxic smoke not only from Canada to the East Coast, but across whole continents. “Climate change is acting as a performance enhancer: It’s exacerbating what is a natural rhythm,” says Pyne. “There’s no reason to think that those trends will suddenly stop.”

“It’s a global problem now,” says Mary Prunicki, director of air pollution and health research at Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research. The immediate health effects of exposure to wildfire smoke can be devastating for vulnerable people, but less is known about long-term effects from short exposure. “This is relatively new, to have this type of massive exposure to a group that’s never been exposed before,” she says. 

This map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts the movement of smoke over the coming days.

Video: NOAA

Wildfire smoke is a complex amalgamation of materials, including burnt plant material and—if buildings go up in flames—human-made stuff like plastic. What makes smoke visible are its toxic particulates—dubbed PM 2.5 and 10, meaning particles smaller than 2.5 and 10 microns. But there are a lot of invisible nasties in there too, like benzene, formaldehyde, carbon gasses and even fungal pathogens. As the smoke travels through the atmosphere, it can actually form new chemical hazards over time, like ozone, which exacerbates asthma. “The biggest health impacts are definitely from the particulate matter,” says Rebecca Hornbrook, an atmospheric chemist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who has flown planes through wildfire smoke to study its components. “But there are a lot of things that are omitted that are on the EPA’s list of dangerous chemicals.” 

Wildfire smoke can cause immediate health effects, like heart attacks, stroke, and bronchitis, particularly in more vulnerable people with respiratory issues, and can be threatening to pregnant women. “These single exposure events can be really devastating to people with preexisting conditions,” says Shahir Masri, an air pollution scientist at the University of California, Irvine. 

Exposure to this kind of pollution can also weaken the immune system. A 2021 study found that Covid-19 cases and deaths in California, Oregon, and Washington the previous year were exacerbated by increases in fine particulate air pollution from wildfire smoke. “Whether it’s Covid or any other virus, this is a time to avoid not only exposure to fine outdoor matter, but also really trying not to get sick,” says Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics, population, and data science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who worked on the study. “Your ability to fight the virus is less effective.” 

This year’s fire season in Canada is “unprecedented” and may become record-breaking, says Flannigan. Hundreds of fires have been burning in Canada—some for days or weeks—usually started by human activity or lightning, then fed by dry vegetation, and worsened by hot, dry, windy weather. Rising warm air on land has lofted that smoke to between 5,000 feet and 20,000 feet high, where the haze gets rapidly transported south and east in strong winds. 

How Old Are You, Really? New Tests Want to Tell You

How Old Are You, Really? New Tests Want to Tell You

Age is just a number—and one you may be able to change. At least that’s the pitch behind Tally Health, a new startup that’s among a crop of companies selling tests that offer to tell consumers their “biological age.”

You’ve heard of at-home tests like those from 23andMe and Ancestry, which scan your DNA to provide information about ethnic heritage and health risks. Now, a wave of startups is marketing tests that claim to parse your blood, urine, or saliva sample to reveal your biological age. The tests measure epigenetic patterns, or changes in the body that affect how genes behave. Unlike a calendar age, which marches along at the same pace for everyone, biological age is the speed at which cells, tissues, and organs appear to decline—and that can vary, depending on a person’s health history.

Tally Health, which launched last week, is one of around a dozen companies that offer these tests. Harvard University biologist David Sinclair, the company’s cofounder, describes its version as something like a credit score for your body. You swab your cheek and drop your sample in the mail, and the company sends you back your biological age. “If you’re younger, that’s great. We want to keep you there and even make you stay younger as you get chronologically older,” Sinclair says. “If you come up with a number that’s older than your cohort, then we’re here to help get you back to not just average, but even below average, biological age.”   

Genetics and lifestyle both contribute to aging. Choices like diet, exercise, smoking, and drinking alcohol all cause epigenetic changes in how genes behave. Exposure to stress, trauma, and pollution can also have an effect. Scientists think the accumulation of all these factors affects a person’s biological age, but Sinclair believes that genetics are far less important than factors that are largely within a person’s control. (Sinclair is 53, but he says that, according to Tally Health’s test, his biological age is more like 43.)

Sinclair is an influential and often controversial researcher in the antiaging field thanks to his promotion of resveratrol, a compound found in red grapes, which he once called “as close to a miraculous molecule as you can find.” Other researchers have been more cautious about resveratrol’s possible benefits, given its mixed results in animal tests. (Sinclair takes resveratrol supplements daily, and his Harvard lab is still pursuing research on the compound). Sinclair has founded several biotech companies, including ones focused on longevity, and his 2019 book Lifespan: Why We Age–and Why We Don’t Have To, debuted on The New York Times bestseller list. 

“What we are trying to do, at the highest level, is to change the way we age,” says Melanie Goldey, CEO of Tally Health. “It’s one number that tells you how your body is really aging versus how many birthdays you’ve had.” (Goldey says her biological age is about six months younger than her chronological one.)

In addition to giving each customer an age reading, the New York City–based company provides an action plan of personalized lifestyle recommendations, such as getting more sleep, spending less time sitting, minimizing stress, or eating more vegetables—arguably things that most people could benefit from. Users can take a one-time test for $229 or get a membership to test every three months so they can monitor their biological age over time. “We think that’s a good amount of time for people to get their action plan, be empowered by the information, choose the adjustments they want to make, and actually implement some change,” Goldey says.  

She says the company had amassed a wait list of more than 270,000 people when it launched, although she didn’t say how many people have signed up for a membership, which ranges from $129 to $199 a month.