Elon Musk’s Neuralink is under federal investigation for potential animal-welfare violations amid internal staff complaints that its animal testing is being rushed, causing needless suffering and deaths, according to documents reviewed by Reuters and sources familiar with the investigation and company operations.
Neuralink Corp. is developing a brain implant it hopes will help paralyzed people walk again, blind people see and disabled people control technology without the need for movement. Co-founder Musk recently said he hopes that the Neuralink brain chip will be ready for human trials within six months.
The federal probe into Neuralink’s animal welfare practices was opened in recent months by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General at the request of a federal prosecutor, according to two sources with knowledge of the investigation. The probe, one of the sources said, focuses on violations of the Animal Welfare Act, which governs how researchers treat and test some animals.
Reuters conducted interviews with more than 20 current and former employees of Neuralink and reviewed dozens of company documents that reveal complaints about CEO Musk pressuring employees to accelerate development, resulting in botched experiments and increasing the number of animals being tested and killed.
In all, the company has killed about 1,500 animals, including more than 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys, following experiments since 2018, according to records reviewed by Reuters and sources with direct knowledge of the company’s animal-testing operations. The sources characterized that figure as a rough estimate because the company does not keep precise records on the number of animals tested and killed. Neuralink has also conducted research using rats and mice.
Musk and other Neuralink executives did not respond to requests for comment.
The total number of animal deaths does not necessarily indicate that Neuralink is violating regulations or standard research practices. Many companies routinely use animals in experiments to advance human health care, and they face financial pressure to quickly bring products to market. The animals are typically killed when experiments are completed, often so they can be examined post-mortem for research purposes.
But current and former Neuralink employees say the number of animal deaths is higher than it needs to be for reasons related to Musk’s demands to speed research. Through company discussions and documents spanning several years, along with employee interviews, Reuters identified four experiments involving 86 pigs and two monkeys that were marred in recent years by human errors.
The mistakes weakened the experiments’ research value and required the tests to be repeated, leading to more animals being killed, three of the current and former staffers said. The three people attributed the mistakes to a lack of preparation by a testing staff working in a pressure-cooker environment.
On several occasions over the years, Musk has told employees to imagine they had a bomb strapped to their heads in an effort to get them to move faster, according to three sources who repeatedly heard the comment. On one occasion a few years ago, Musk told employees he would trigger a “market failure” at Neuralink unless they made more progress, a comment perceived by some employees as a threat to shut down operations, according to a former staffer who heard his comment.
Five people who’ve worked on Neuralink’s animal experiments told Reuters they had raised concerns internally. They said they had advocated for a more traditional testing approach, in which researchers would test one element at a time in an animal study and draw relevant conclusions before moving on to more animal tests. Instead, these people said, Neuralink launches tests in quick succession before fixing issues in earlier tests or drawing complete conclusions. The result: More animals overall are tested and killed, in part because the approach leads to repeated tests.
One former employee who asked management several years ago for more deliberate testing was told by a senior executive it wasn’t possible given Musk’s demands for speed, the employee said. Two people told Reuters they left the company over concerns about animal research.
The problems with Neuralink’s testing have raised questions internally about the quality of the resulting data, three current or former employees said. Such problems could potentially delay the company’s bid to start human trials. They also add to a growing list of headaches for Musk, who is facing criticism of his management of Twitter, which he recently acquired for $44 billion. Musk also continues to run electric carmaker Tesla Inc. and rocket company SpaceX.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in charge of reviewing the company’s applications for approval of its medical device and associated trials. The company’s treatment of animals during research, however, is regulated by the USDA under the Animal Welfare Act. The FDA didn’t immediately comment.
Some Neuralink rivals are having more success. Synchron, which was launched in 2016 and is developing a different implant with less ambitious goals for medical advances, received FDA approval to start human trials in 2021. The company’s device has allowed paralyzed people to text and type by thinking alone. Synchron has also conducted tests on animals, but it has killed only about 80 sheep as part of its research, according to studies of the Synchron implant reviewed by Reuters. Musk approached Synchron about a potential investment, Reuters reported in August.
Synchron declined to comment.
© 2022 Reuters