Neuralink denies culpability in implant-related monkey deaths

Elon Musk's brain implant venture says their monkeys are “respected and honored” at Neuralink.

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Last week, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a national nonprofit comprised of over 17,000 members, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) against the University of California, Davis and Neuralink. The complaint alleged that Neuralink and its partners had violated the “federal Animal Welfare Act related to invasive and deadly brain experiments conducted on 23 monkeys.”

The university had received over $1.4 million from Neuralink, a company that Elon Musk launched in 2016 to develop a brain-machine interface. Out of the 23 test subject monkeys, only 8 had survived the clinical trials.

In the PCRM filing, Neuralink and UC Davis staff were accused of failing to provide the adequate veterinary care to dying monkeys, using an unapproved substance dubbed “Bioglue,” which destroyed parts of the monkeys’ brains, and an inability to ensure the psychological well-being of the monkeys involved.

Neuralink’s response — Not willing to leave the animal cruelty accusations unaddressed, a lengthy blog post was uploaded to Neuralink’s site that attempts to right the ship. In the beginning of the post the firm tries to insinuate that the PCRM filing was made in bad faith: “It is important to note that these accusations come from people who oppose any use of animals in research.”

The company goes on to point out that physical injuries to some of the subjects’ bodies, like missing fingers and toes, could have occurred “throughout their life from conflicts with other monkeys ... no such injuries occurred at any time ... at UC Davis while part of Neuralink’s project.”

When it came to the death of some of the monkeys involved with the implant research, Neuralink admitted that “two animals were euthanized at planned end dates to gather important histological data, and six animals were euthanized at the medical advice of the veterinary staff at UC Davis.” The animals were euthanized due to a number of reasons including surgical complication related to Bioglue, medical device failure, and associated infections, the latter of which were described as a “risk inherent with any percutaneous medical device.” Ultimately the animals were put to death so that researchers could practice implant surgery on the cadavers.

“All animal work done at UC Davis was approved by their Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) as mandated by Federal law, and all medical and post-surgical support, including endpoint decisions were overseen by their dedicated and skilled veterinary staff,” Neuralink explained.

With regard to the facilities offered to the test subjects, Neuralink claimed it wanted to improve existing, federally mandated standards (which UC Davis supposedly met) by introducing the monkeys to an in-house facility. This facility in question is a 6,000 square-foot vivarium that was opened in 2020.

In the closing paragraph of its response, Neuralink seemed to suggest that animals can signal a desire to contribute to medical research and that its facilities are in the process of allowing this possibility. Certainly no monkeys involved with this project were able to consent to something like invasive brain surgery, but that is the future Neuralink seems to be projecting towards.