Billionaire Elon Musk’s Neuralink, a neurotechnology company developing brain implants is reportedly facing a federal probe over concerns about animal welfare by the US Department of Agriculture. Reportedly, the federal probe was opened by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture after sources reported violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The company aims to develop a brain chip that could help paralyzed people walk again and help with other neurological issues. The report comes just days after Musk said that Neuralink is six months away from human trials adding that he would try the brain chip device himself.
The report of the investigation comes amid several complaints that animal testing is being rushed to get results after missing Musk’s deadlines. A Reuters report wherein they interviewed twenty former and current employees of Neuralink states that pressure exerted by Musk has caused staffers to feel rushed, resulting in errors while testing and resulting in more animal suffering and deaths. The report further adds that roughly 1,500 animals, including sheep, pigs, and monkeys, have been killed during Neuralink testing since 2018.
Neuralink employees told Reuters that the errors involve the use of incorrect surgical glue or the wrong-size of brain chip, which caused scientists to have to kill those animals and start experiments over again. The failed tests were repeated, thus the number of animals tested and killed increased. However, Reuters could not determine whether the federal probe involved the same alleged issues with animal testing that it found by talking to employees.
According to US regulations, there is no cap on the number of animals allowed to be used for research by companies. Scientists can determine when and how to use animals in experiments. Neuralink has cleared all USDA inspections of its facilities, as per regulatory filings. One of the sources told Reuters that the probe is concerned with the testing and treatment of animals in Neuralink’s own facilities, one of the sources said, without elaborating. Neuralink brought the testing program in-house in 2020, and has since built extensive facilities in California and Texas.
For research on human health care, companies routinely use animals in experiments. Mostly, the animals are killed after experiments are completed to examine port-mortem for research purposes. Hence, the total number of animal deaths does not necessarily indicate that Neuralink is violating regulations or standard research practices.