Neuralink's animal research oversight board may pose conflicts of interest: Reuters

Already under fire for other aspects of its animal testing program, Neuralink is in the hot seat once again, this time for potential conflicts of interest tied to the oversight board governing the animal research program.

As of late last year, 19 of the board’s 22 members were Neuralink employees, according to a Reuters report citing internal company documents and interviews with several current and former employees at the brain-computer interface startup. More than half of the 19 were reportedly directly involved in Neuralink’s animal care and research operations; they included the company executive in charge of the animal care program, who was tapped to lead the oversight board.

These types of boards are required by federal law to help ensure that animal experiments are safe for the animals but also produce valid results to determine whether a drug or device like Neuralink’s brain implant can move into human trials.

As Reuters notes, packing the board with internal employees could present an ethical conflict, since the workers involved may have a vested interest in pushing research and development forward as quickly as possible, perhaps even without taking all necessary precautions.

Neuralink did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters or Fierce Medtech. The private company also hasn’t publicized the makeup of its oversight board, leading Reuters to concede that the lineup could have changed since the late 2022 document the outlet reviewed.

Neuralink is in the process of developing an implanted device that could connect an individual’s brain to a computer, creating what founder Elon Musk has described as the equivalent of placing “a Fitbit in your skull” and allowing users to send texts and emails, for example, using only their minds.

The implant boasts a variety of potentially groundbreaking medical applications. Not only could that “mind-reading” technology help people with paralysis communicate more quickly and effectively, but the implant could also tap into certain areas of the brain to restore sight, mobility and more, as Musk described during a show-and-tell presentation last fall.

Before then, however, the technology must be successfully put through first animal and then human trials. Though Musk said during the late November presentation that the company was about six months away from starting human trials, another Reuters report earlier this year found that the FDA had rejected a request from Neuralink in spring 2022 to begin testing its device in humans and that some current and former employees thought it unlikely the regulator’s concerns would be fully resolved in time to meet Musk’s proposed timeline.

In the meantime, Neuralink is also reportedly under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its animal testing practices.

The probe came to light in December, several months after an anti-animal cruelty group filed a complaint with the department claiming that Neuralink regularly denied its macaque monkey test subjects necessary physical and medical care. Neuralink has denied all allegations of animal abuse, and, during the November presentation, Musk made a point of highlighting how “happy” the monkeys seemed in a video of the experiments in action.