Elon Musk‘s brain-chip firm Neuralink has admitted monkeys died during tests, but denied claims of animal abuse put forward by an animal rights group.
The biotech firm is developing a brain-computer interface, that it claims could one day make humans hyper-intelligent, and allow paralyzed people to walk again.
Last week the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) lodged a complaint with the US Department of Agriculture, alleging several counts of animal abuse between 2017 and 2020, involving test monkeys owned by Neuralink.
They claimed the macaque monkeys, housed at a University of California Davis research facility, were subject to experiments that amounted to torture, with evidence of rashes, self-mutilation and brain hemorrhages seen in documentation.
Neuralink has hit back at the claims of abuse, calling out the PCRM as a group that oppose any use of animals in research.
‘Currently, all novel medical devices and treatments must be tested in animals before they can be ethically trialed in humans. Neuralink is not unique in this regard. At Neuralink, we are absolutely committed to working with animals in the most humane and ethical way possible,’ the firm wrote in a blog post.
UC Davis ended its relationship with Neuralink in 2020 and says during the experiments it had thoroughly reviewed and approved research protocols.
The original complaint came from records obtained by the PCRM under freedom of information legislation from UC Davis, covering 600 pages of documents that include veterinary records and necropsy reports.
UC Davis received more than $1.4 million from Neuralink to carry out the experiments between 2017 and 2020, according to PCRM.
Concerns raised by PCRM in the complaint included an example of a monkey missing fingers and toes that may have been lost to ‘self mutilation’.
Another is of a monkey with holes drilled in its skull to have electrodes implanted into the brain, and a third of one suffering from a brain hemorrhage.
The majority of the monkeys had to be euthanized, or died as a result of procedures, according to the complaint.
Neuralink wrote that it initially made use of either dead monkeys for initial research, and then terminal procedures, which are monkeys are already suffering from serious health issues that would likely lead to a poor health outcome.
‘Performing initial surgeries on cadavers and terminal procedures ensures that an animal does not potentially suffer post-operatively in the event the test procedure has an unexpected result,’ the firm wrote in a blog post.
‘These animals were assigned to our project on the day of the surgery for our terminal procedure because they had a wide range of pre-existing conditions unrelated to our research.
‘In addition to pre-existing conditions these animals may have happened to lose digits throughout their life from conflicts with other monkeys.
‘Missing digits are often a result of rhesus macaques resolving conflict through aggressive interactions with one another.’
PCRM were prompted to look into the issue after becoming skeptical of claims made by Neuralink that primates were able to control computers with their mind.
A video was released by Neuralink early last year, showing a monkey named Pager playing ‘MindPong’ – a version of the classic game Pong – using an implanted Neuralink, simply by thinking about where to place the paddle on the screen.
In its complaint, the animal rights group argue that UC Davis are guilty of nine violations of the Animal Welfare Act – this includes a breach of the rule that says researchers must minimize pain and distress for animals in their care.
A spokesperson for UC Davis told DailyMail.com that ‘UC Davis staff provided veterinary care, including round-the-clock monitoring of experimental animals and reported any incidents to the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which mandated training and protocol changes as needed.’
‘Many, if not all, of the monkeys experienced extreme suffering as a result of inadequate animal care and the highly invasive experimental head implants during the experiments, which were performed in pursuit of developing what Neuralink and Elon Musk have publicly described as a ‘brain-machine interface,’ the group wrote.
‘These highly invasive implants and their associated hardware, which are inserted in the brain after drilling holes in the animals’ skulls, have produced recurring infections in the animals, significantly compromising their health, as well as the integrity of the research.’
Late last year Elon Musk said he hoped Neuralink will be able to start testing on humans this year, implanting them with brain chips.
Jeremy Beckham, from PCRM, told Insider he was ‘extremely skeptical that they’re anywhere near being able to safely carry out anything in human volunteers.’
‘We wanted to look at the internal UC Davis records themselves, including videos and photographs, to get a better understanding of what was happening to the animals in the experiments as well as verify the integrity and promise of the research,’ he added in a statement to the Sun.
He said the records show that monkeys faced extreme suffering under the care of Neuralink and UC Davis, but that some of the information about the treatment of the animals had been withheld.
‘Pretty much every single monkey that had had implants put in their head suffered from pretty debilitating health effects,’ Beckham told the New York Post, adding that ‘they were, frankly, maiming and killing the animals.’
Neuralink said the initial work from procedures involving cadavers and monkeys with pre-existing conditions, allowed them to create new surgical and robotic procedures that made future implants much safer.
‘Survival studies then allowed us to test the function of different generations of implanted devices as we refined them towards human use.
‘The use of every animal was extensively planned and considered to balance scientific discovery with the ethical use of animals,’ the firm wrote.
Two animals had to be euthanized as part of this later-stage work, when they reached the planned end dates of the project – to ‘gather important histological data’, and a further six animals were euthanized at the medical advice of the veterinary staff at UC Davis.
These reasons included one surgical complication involving the use of the FDA-approved product (BioGlue), one device failure, and four suspected device-associated infections, a risk inherent with any percutaneous medical device.
These complications led to the Neuralink team developing surgical protocols and a fully implanted device design for future surgeries.
‘Once construction of our in-house facility was completed, we were able to bring some unimplanted macaques from UC Davis with us to Neuralink.
‘This included Pager, who would later be implanted with our Neuralink device and go on to achieve outstanding brain-computer interface performance, while freely behaving and unrestrained, as demonstrated in the Monkey MindPong video.’
PCRM plans to sue UC Davis, calling for access to photographs and videos not released as part of the original data request.
It also wants access to the animal ID numbers to trace where they ended up after the contract with UC Davis ended in 2020, but the university says the materials are owned by Neuralink.
As Neuralink is a private company, it is not subject to data requests, however PCRM says ‘when you make use of these public facilities and these public resources, you forfeit your right to cloak the work you’re doing from the public.’
A spokesperson for UC Davis told Insider the university ‘acted lawfully’ and ‘fully complied with the California Public Records Act in responding to their request’ for information on the experiments and contract.
‘Animal research is strictly regulated, and UC Davis follows all applicable laws and regulations including those of the US Department of Agriculture.’
NEURALINK CARE PLAN
Neuralink says it pushes itself to continue to improve animal welfare at its 6,000 sq ft facility.
The firm shared the following in a blog post, outlining care measures:
Housing: Our housing enclosure provides our animals 200 sq ft in floor space with 12 ft in height.
This is a 150 fold increase in space available to our animals over the industry standard.
These enclosures are filled with environmental enrichments including pools, perches, swings, and other objects that encourage natural behaviors of the animal.
Care: We have a large, dedicated team of veterinarians, veterinary technicians, behaviorists, enrichment technicians, and animal care specialists who provide positive reinforcement training and around the clock care for our animals.
Diet: We’ve worked with our team of veterinarians to supplement those biscuits with fresh fruits, vegetables, juices, and smoothies, which vastly exceeds industry practice in terms of variety and complexity, providing a healthier and more naturalistic diet.
Socialization: Social species deserve our efforts to find them social opportunities they are comfortable with.
Behaviorists are employed to assist animals with the naturally evolving dynamics of a hierarchical troop.
Motivating Animals: We do not practice water and food restriction, which are common strategies used in medical research to motivate animals to perform behavioral tasks.
Instead, as discussed above, we utilize a diverse diet with novel food items to intrigue animals and encourage them to engage and participate with the behavioral tasks.
If an animal chooses not to participate in a training task, they are never forced to do so.
Restraint Devices: At Neuralink, we’ve worked relentlessly to do away with restraints entirely and minimize the time needed engaging in a task to obtain optimal data.
Retirement: Can we release the animals that regularly choose not to participate or who have completed their contribution to the study? Yes!
We opted to retire animals at the conclusion of their projects.
We retired several macaques to a sanctuary last March because they consistently chose to spend their day swimming in their pools, foraging, and relaxing in their hammocks rather than attending the game we presented to them.
A spokesperson for UC Davis told DailyMail.com: ‘Regarding the lawsuit by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, we fully complied with the California Public Records Act in responding to their request.
‘Indeed, additional materials have been supplied to PCRM since the conclusion of the research agreement with Neuralink.’
Neuralink says it now has a dedicated 6,000 sq ft vivarium, housing farm animals and rhesus macaques – staffed with caretakers passionate about animal well being.
‘Prior to opening our in-house facility, we engaged the local United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors to ensure that we would meet and exceed all requirements of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA),’ Neuralink wrote.
‘Notably, Neuralink has never received a citation from the USDA inspections of our facilities and animal care program.
‘Additionally, we recently applied for and received accreditation by the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) International, a voluntary international agency accrediting excellence in animal care.
‘Our AAALAC accreditation further highlights that everything we do here at Neuralink not only meets but exceeds the standards set in the Animal Welfare Act regulations (AWA) as well as the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.’
Musk first unveiled his Neuralink startup in 2016, touting the technology as the key to helping paraplegics walk, the cure for depression and a way to merge humans with computers.
Neuralink’s system is comprised of a computer chip attached to tiny flexible threads that are stitched into the brain by a ‘sewing-machine-like’ robot.
The device pickups signals in the brain, which are then translated into motor controls.
Musk says that the technology has proven to be safe in the brain and can be easily removed, so the only thing holding Neuralink back from human trials is FDA approval.
In an email, UC Davis told DailyMail.com: ‘UC Davis did have a research collaboration with Neuralink, which concluded in 2020. The research protocols were thoroughly reviewed and approved by the campus’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).
‘The work was conducted by Neuralink researchers in facilities at the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis. UC Davis staff provided veterinary care including round-the-clock monitoring of experimental animals. When an incident occurred, it was reported to the IACUC, which mandated training and protocol changes as needed.’
‘We strive to provide the best possible care to animals in our charge. Animal research is strictly regulated and UC Davis follows all applicable laws and regulations including those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which makes regular inspections, and the NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare.
The UC Davis animal care program, including the California National Primate Research Center, is accredited by AAALAC International, a nonprofit organization. As a national primate research center, the CNPRC is a resource for both public and private sector researchers.’
Neuralink says it wants to get to a point where it no longer needs to experiment on animals to achieve its goals of a brain-computer interface.
‘Yet our society currently relies on medical breakthroughs to cure diseases, prevent the spread of viruses, and create technology that can change how people are able to interact with the world.
‘However, if animals must be used in research in the meantime, their lives and experiences should be as vital and naturalistic as possible.
‘We will always strive to surpass the industry standard and never stop asking ourselves: “Can we do better for the animals?”, and never forget it is a privilege to work with animals in research. It is our responsibility as caretakers to ensure that their experience is as peaceful and frankly, as joyful as possible.’
- Daily Mail