Neuralink's First Patient Comes Forward

Noland Arbaugh talks to Bloomberg about his gains—and his struggles
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 17, 2024 6:35 AM CDT

Noland Arbaugh had never heard of Neuralink when a friend reached out in September, saying the company was looking for a quadriplegic to test its wireless brain-computer interface implant. For Arbaugh, who was paralyzed below the shoulders during a diving accident in 2016, the idea that he could control a computer monitor with his thoughts was intriguing. For a while, he'd felt like a burden and apart from the world, having to navigate an iPad using a stick held in his mouth. "I was sure that I was going to stay with my parents as long as they could have me, and then, at some point, I would be put in a home, and there's nothing I could do about it," the 30-year-old from Yuma, Arizona, tells Bloomberg.

Half a year later, Arbaugh is the "celebrity cyborg," the first human patient to receive a Neuralink brain implant, per Bloomberg. With some help, he filled out a questionnaire. After weeks of phone interviews, he was invited to Phoenix's Barrow Neurological Institute for tests and discovered he was the lead candidate. "You could see how excited everyone was," says Arbaugh. "They kept telling me what an honor it was to meet me and how I was doing the greatest thing in the world." Arbaugh might not put it that way, but after his accident, "I'd wondered why it had happened to me and what God had in store for me," he says. "When I started doing all the Neuralink stuff, I was like, 'OK, well, this is it.'"

He received the implant Jan. 28. After two hours of surgery, he awoke and told his mother he didn't know who she was—his idea of a joke. The truth is the surgery is invasive. Tiny threads attached to the coin-sized implant are embedded into brain tissue, where electrodes gather data from neurons. Through training, the device learns to interpret neuronal activity and translate it into computer actions. Arbaugh is able to move a cursor around a screen, meaning he can shop online, play video games, compile a fantasy baseball roster, all while lying in bed. There are issues, though. Some of the threads in Arbaugh's brain shifted, causing a delay between his thoughts and the resulting computer actions.

story continues below

"At first, they didn't know how serious it would be or a ton about it," says Arbaugh. He says he cried, assuming Neuralink would move on to another patient. Neuralink is likely to adjust its surgical procedures in future patients, per Bloomberg. And it's currently searching for its second human test subject, per Business Insider. But the company continues working with Arbaugh, helping him regain control. "It's a blessing," says his mother, noting her son is happier and more comfortable than in the past. He also has something to work toward. He's started tracing letters with his cursor—"the first stage of training Neuralink's software to recognize the words that Arbaugh is thinking," per Bloomberg. He hopes to write a novel, even if that requires an updated brain implant. (More Neuralink stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.