Neuralink reportedly under investigation by Uncle Sam for 'animal welfare violations'
Rushed 'hack job' surgeries cause monkeys, pigs to needlessly die, staffers claim
Neuralink is reportedly being investigated by the US government for possibly mistreating animals in lab experiments as the company rushes to build an implantable brain chip.
The startup, founded in 2016 by belligerent biz baron Elon Musk, is developing a medical device to help people afflicted with brain disorders to communicate, see, or move more easily. The Tesla tycoon said he wants to see the chips in humans next year.
However, before Neuralink obtains permission to start conducting trials on humans from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it has to test the technology on animals to show it's safe enough for people to try.
A lawsuit, filed in February by animal rights group the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, accused the startup of killing monkeys after a series of sloppy surgical procedures to insert electrodes inside their skulls. The group alleges that a substance called BioGlue killed two monkeys by "destroying portions of their brains."
The US Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General (USDA OIG) said it was looking into the situation the same month, and has now launched an official probe investigating animal welfare at the brain biz, Reuters reports.
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The earlier allegations concerned experiments conducted with eggheads at the University of California, Davis and concluded in 2020. Neuralink carelessly killed monkeys after using the BioGlue, it was claimed, or the animals died from infected wounds before any experiments had even begun.
The USDA OIG probe, however, is reportedly concerned with more recent experiments carried out at the company's own facilities. Neuralink has killed roughly 1,500 animals since 2018, including more than 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys, and also operates on rats and mice, we're told. Interviews with more than 20 employees and documents reviewed by Reuters revealed staff complained about animals dying in "hack jobs." Many boffins were apparently frustrated and pushed to perform surgeries quickly.
Musk reportedly sent emails to employees highlighting a news article describing how researchers had built a brain chip to restore mobility in a paralyzed man. "We could enable people to use their hands and walk again in daily life!" he wrote. "In general, we are simply not moving fast enough. It is driving me nuts!" he said in a follow-up email.
Animals are often killed for examination at the end of experiments, it is said. Rushed procedures to implant the device into pigs and monkeys, however, have led to more animals dying and surgery having to be repeated on new animals due to botched or failed attempts, it's claimed.
Musk has repeatedly predicted Neuralink's brain implant will soon be tested in humans. Last week, he said the biz had submitted most of its paperwork to the FDA and could probably get trials started in six months from now.
"We're extremely careful," he said at Neuralink's latest show-and-tell event, and claimed experiments on animals were only performed for "confirmatory, not exploratory," research.
The Register has asked Neuralink and the USDA OIG for further comment. ®