Neuralink fined for violating hazardous material transport rules, docs show: Reuters

Nearly a year after reports first surfaced of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s investigation into Elon Musk’s Neuralink, records reportedly show that the agency did indeed find issues in the startup’s handling of hazardous materials, prompting a modest fine.

The violations were outlined in DOT documents obtained in a records request by the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine (PCRM)—an animal research advocacy group that has previously claimed that Neuralink mistreats its animal subjects, in accusations that Neuralink has denied. PCRM shared its findings with Reuters.

According to the news wire’s report Friday, DOT investigators discovered during their investigations of Neuralink’s Texas and California sites early last year that the company was improperly packaging hazardous waste. Among the mishandled substances was Xylene, a flammable liquid, exposure to which can cause irritation, headaches, dizziness and even death in high doses.

In addition, the DOT also found that Neuralink wasn’t properly registered at the time to transport hazardous materials.

The newly unsurfaced records reportedly show that the DOT reduced the amount it was initially going to fine Neuralink for the violations after the Musk-founded company pledged to fix the issues. Ultimately, it levied a fine of just $2,480.

The agency confirmed to Reuters that its probe of Neuralink has now been completed. For its part, the brain-computer interface company did not respond to requests for comment from either Reuters or Fierce Medtech.

The DOT confirmed it was investigating Neuralink last February, after PCRM sent a letter (PDF) to Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, asking his department to look into the company’s transport of potentially dangerous materials.

The organization said it had obtained public records indicating that Neuralink employees—perhaps due to insufficient training—may have “unsafely packaged and transported materials (specifically, implants removed from the brains of nonhuman primates) carrying infectious pathogens on several occasions.” The explanted devices may have been contaminated with a range of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, which could in turn cause severe injuries or death in humans who may come into contact with the devices, PCRM wrote.

Though the letter didn’t outline any such harm that may have occurred from contact with the allegedly improperly handled materials, the advocacy group urged the DOT to launch an investigation into the allegations, concluding in the letter that “the company’s documented track record of sloppy, unsafe laboratory practices compel DOT to investigate and levy appropriate fines”—which PCRM suggested could reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

With the DOT probe complete, Neuralink is now in the process of recruiting for the first human trials of its flagship brain-computer interface technology.

The company scored a long-awaited green light from the FDA last spring allowing it to begin clinical trials of the N1 device, which Musk has claimed could one day help the blind see and the paralyzed walk, and, ultimately, create a population of cyborg-like people whose brains are closely linked to their smartphones.

To start, Neuralink is recruiting a small group of patients with quadriplegia caused by a cervical spinal cord injury or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. They’ll have the N1 device implanted in their brains by the company’s specially designed R1 robot, after which Neuralink’s algorithms will be trained to translate their brain activity into actions on a computer, potentially allowing them to control a cursor or keyboard with only their thoughts.