Neuralink, the Elon Musk-founded start-up aimed at developing wireless brain-machine interfaces, is at the centre of a federal investigation in the United States.
This is according to Reuters, which reported on the investigation after viewing documents and speaking to sources familiar with the investigation and company operations.
Reuters reported that Neuralink is under federal investigation for potential animal-welfare violations. And it comes amid alleged internal staff complaints that animal testing at Neuralink is being rushed, causing needless suffering and deaths.
Elon Musk touted in July 2020 that Neuralink’s end goal was not just to create a FitBit for the skull and stream music directly into a person’s brain, bypassing the need for earphones (and even ears) altogether.
Musk is hoping the creation of a brain interface may allow doctors to alleviate symptoms of chronic medical and neurological conditions in human beings.
According to Reuters this week however, the federal probe, which has not been previously reported, was opened in recent months by the US 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.
The investigation has come at a time of growing employee dissent about Neuralink’s animal testing, including complaints that pressure from CEO Musk to accelerate development has resulted in botched experiments, according to a Reuters review of dozens of Neuralink documents and interviews with more than 20 current and former employees.
Last week Elon Musk told a crowd of select invitees in a presentation at Neuralink headquarters, that the firm will begin human testing within the next six months.
Musk has reportedly previously expressed frustration to Neuralink employees about their slow progress.
Neuralink is lagging behind that of medical device rival Synchron, which crossed a major milestone in July by implanting its device in a patient in the United States for the first time.
It had received US regulatory clearance for human trials back in 2021 and has already completed studies in four people in Australia. The company’s device has allowed paralysed people to text and type by thinking alone.
According to the Reuters report on the federal probe into Neuralink, failed tests at the firm have had to be repeated, increasing the number of animals being tested and killed, the employees allegedly say.
The company documents include previously unreported messages, audio recordings, emails, presentations and reports, Reuters noted.
Musk and other Neuralink executives did not respond to requests for comment, Reuters reported.
Reuters said it could not determine the full scope of the federal investigation or whether it involved the same alleged problems with animal testing identified by employees in Reuters interviews.
A spokesperson for the USDA inspector general declined to comment, but it should be noted that regulatory filings show Neuralink has passed all USDA inspections of its facilities.
In all, Neuralink 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 characterised 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.
The total number of animal deaths does not necessarily indicate that Neuralink is violating regulations or standard research practices.
One employee, in a message seen by Reuters, wrote an angry missive earlier this year to colleagues about the need to overhaul how the company organises animal surgeries to prevent “hack jobs.”
The rushed schedule, the employee wrote, resulted in under-prepared and over-stressed staffers scrambling to meet deadlines and making last-minute changes before surgeries, raising risks to the animals.
This is not the first time that concern about animal testing at Neuralink has surfaced.
In February this year Neuralink admitted eight monkeys had died during its research, as it responded to a legal complaint from anti animal testing group.
The group that opposed medical testing on animals called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) had filed a state lawsuit and federal complaint with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The complaint was centred against the University of California, Davis, which helped Neuralink conduct its brain computing research on primates.
Neuralink at the time hit back at the complaint, and denied that any of the animals involved in its research experienced extreme suffering as alleged by PCRM.
There is no doubt Neuralink has conducted animal testing for years.
In September 20202 Neuralink showed a video of a pig called Gertrude (Gertie) with an implant that allowed her neural activity to be tracked as she looked for food.
Then in April 2021, Neuralink posted a video that showed a monkey playing a game of Pong using only signals from its mind.
That video showed the monkey first controlling the game using a joystick, and being rewarded with a banana smoothie delivered through a metal straw. Meanwhile the implanted chip records the brain signals used to control the joystick.
When the scientific team disconnected the joystick, the monkey continued to play, but now the game of “MindPong”, as the company nicknamed it, is apparently controlled using its brain signals only.