Musk's Neuralink disputes accusations of animal abuse in brain implant experiments

Neuralink, the brain-computer interface startup led by Elon Musk, released a statement Monday countering allegations that its animal testing practices are inhumane and have led to the “horrific abuse” and deaths of several macaque monkeys.

The claims first arose last week when the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding the treatment of monkeys at the University of California (UC), Davis in connection with Neuralink’s experiments. PCRM is a nonprofit organization with an anti-animal cruelty focus and promotes alternatives to animal testing.

Neuralink, meanwhile, is developing a device that Musk has described as “a Fitbit in your skull,” with the ability to measure an individual’s movement, body temperature and other information, then wirelessly transmit the collected data to a mobile device. The system received the FDA’s breakthrough designation in 2020 and is aiming to enter human trials this year.

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The nonprofit group said that while testing its implanted brain device on 23 monkeys at the university, Neuralink mistreated the animals by refusing to provide needed physical and mental care, using an “unapproved substance” to conduct the tests and, in some cases, euthanizing monkeys “before they were even used in the planned experiment.”

PCRM’s claims are based on files obtained via public records requests comprising nearly 600 pages of what the organization called “disturbing documents.” It has since filed a second request to collect videos and photos of the monkeys from the university.

“The documents reveal that monkeys had their brains mutilated in shoddy experiments and were left to suffer and die. It’s no mystery why Elon Musk and the university want to keep photos and videos of this horrific abuse hidden from the public,” Jeremy Beckham, a research advocacy coordinator with PCRM, said in a statement.

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In response, Neuralink shared a blog post Monday outlining its approach to animal testing and directly disputing the claims made by PCRM.

To start, the company aimed to reframe the euthanizations, noting that when its animal testing program was initially housed at UC Davis, it used only cadavers and terminal procedures, denoting animals that “have been deemed by the veterinary staff to be healthy enough for one anesthetic event but may not have proper quality of life due to a pre-existing condition.”

That resulted in two scheduled euthanizations and six others that were linked to complications with the experiments. Among the latter category was one “surgical complication” involving the surgical adhesive BioGlue, which PCRM indicated had resulted in multiple deaths and was “unapproved” by regulators—but has in fact been FDA approved as a surgical adhesive since 2001.

Neuralink said those deaths led the company to develop “new surgical protocols and a fully implanted device design for future surgeries.”

As for the allegations that Neuralink failed to provide adequate veterinary care or prioritize the monkeys’ psychological well-being, the company said all of its tests were closely overseen by UC Davis’ veterinary staff and approved by the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

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Additionally, after transferring the experiments from the campus to Neuralink’s own facility, the company said it set out to “design an animal care program prioritizing the needs of the animals.”

That includes a 6,000-square-foot vivarium for both monkey and pig subjects that includes more living space than is federally required, around-the-clock care, a “healthier and more naturalistic diet” for the animals, a focus on socialization and motivational practices that don’t involve withholding food and water. Neuralink is also currently planning another facility that allows for even more “animal agency,” the company said.

“We also look forward to a day where animals are no longer necessary for medical research. … However, if animals must be used in research in the meantime, their lives and experiences should be as vital and naturalistic as possible,” the company wrote in the blog post.