Months after Neuralink shot down allegations of “horrific abuse” in its animal testing practices, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA's) inspector general has reportedly opened an investigation into the accusations against Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company.
According to a Monday item from Reuters, a federal prosecutor requested the probe. Sources told the outlet that the investigation is focusing on potential violations of the Animal Welfare Act, a federal law that regulates the treatment and care of many animals in research and other professional settings.
The government has not made public any details about the probe, and Neuralink did not immediately respond to Fierce Medtech’s request for comment.
At the start of this year, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), an anti-animal cruelty group, filed a complaint with the USDA regarding Neuralink’s treatment of animal test subjects at the University of California (UC), Davis.
The nonprofit group cited nearly 600 pages of “disturbing documents” that it said provided evidence that Neuralink was denying nearly two dozen macaque monkeys necessary physical and medical care while conducting tests of its implanted brain device on the primates.
“The documents reveal that monkeys had their brains mutilated in shoddy experiments and were left to suffer and die,” Jeremy Beckham, a research advocacy coordinator with PCRM, said in a statement at the time. The group also alleged that Neuralink euthanized some of the animals before they were ever used in research.
More recently, Reuters reviewed company documents and interviews with more than 20 current and former Neuralink employees. It uncovered claims that increasing pressure from Musk to speed up development of the brain implant has resulted in rushed, failed experiments that must be repeated—therefore subjecting more animal subjects to tests and potentially fatal outcomes.
Since 2018, roughly 1,500 animals have died in Neuralink’s care, Reuters reports. Though some deaths are standard in research processes and don’t necessarily indicate a company’s wrongdoing, the outlet said it had identified four experiments involving 86 pigs and two monkeys that had been botched by human error—including one in which 25 pigs were reportedly implanted with the wrong size device and the experiment had to be repeated with 36 sheep, after which all involved animals were killed—which some employees attributed to the high-pressure environment created by Musk.
Neuralink disputed all of PCRM’s claims in a February blog post. Of eight euthanizations that took place under its care, the company said two had been previously scheduled—since UC Davis’ animal testing program used only cadavers or terminally ill subjects. The other six were linked to complications with Neuralink’s experiments, it said, prompting the company to develop “new surgical protocols and a fully implanted device design for future surgeries.”
The startup also claimed that its tests had been closely overseen by veterinary staff and approved by the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee while based at UC Davis. The animal research program has since moved to Neuralink’s own facility, where the company said the subjects have living spaces that exceed federal requirements, receive a “healthier and more naturalistic diet” than standard lab fare and are tested using motivational practices that don’t withhold food and water.
And, just last week, during a livestreamed update on Neuralink’s progress, Musk repeatedly commented on the monkeys’ well-being while sharing videos of them using the brain implant to “telepathically” move a computer cursor. He also asserted that all animal testing had been approached as a confirmatory move, rather than an exploratory one, after the device was initially put to the test on an artificial human brain.
“I’m pretty sure our monkeys are pretty happy,” he said, referencing the regular delivery of banana smoothies and other snacks throughout their observation periods.
Musk’s startup hasn’t responded to the allegations detailed by Reuters this week, but, according to regulatory filings cited by the outlet, Neuralink has passed all USDA inspections of its facilities.