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Musk’s Neuralink investigated over the death of 1,500 animals

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Neuralink, a medical device company, is under federal investigation following internal staff complaints that its animal testing is being rushed, causing needless suffering and deaths.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General is reportedly looking into possible animal welfare violations by Neuralink Corporation, according to Reuters.

The company has been accused of causing needless suffering and deaths amid pressure from its CEO: billionaire and Twitter owner Elon Musk.

Neuralink is a neurotechnology company that aims to create cranial computers to treat diseases and merge new advanced software abilities with the human brain. 

In addition to potentially treating brain diseases such as epilepsy and Parkinson’s, the implanted device would also act as a sort of “digital layer” that merges human grey matter with advanced technological tools.

To date, around 1,500 animals - including more than 280 sheep, pigs and monkeys - have died as a result of Neuralink tests since 2018, according to company estimates reviewed by Reuters. Neuralink has also conducted research using rats and mice.

The rate of deaths does not necessarily mean that Neuralink is violating regulations or standard research practices, as many companies routinely use animals in experiments to advance human healthcare.

Instead, the federal investigation has been prompted following the complaints from Neuralink employees, who believe that a rushed testing edict from Musk resulted in botched experiments and needless animal deaths, thus violating the US Animal Welfare Act. 

Through company discussions, employee interviews and documents spanning several years, Reuters identified four experiments involving 86 pigs and two monkeys that were marred in recent years by human errors.

In one instance in 2021, 25 out of 60 pigs in a study had devices that were the wrong size implanted in their heads, an error that could have been avoided with more preparation. When one of the scientists warned that the mistake could be a “red flag” to FDA reviewers of the study, the experiment was repeated with 36 sheep. All the animals, both the pigs and the sheep, were killed after the procedures.

On another occasion, staff accidentally implanted Neuralink’s device in the wrong vertebra of two different pigs during two separate surgeries, leading the company veterinarian to advise his colleagues to immediately kill one of the pigs to end her suffering.

All these mistakes were said to be caused by a rushed schedule and ultimately 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 investigation comes as Musk announced last week that he believes Neuralink will implant one of its devices in a human brain within the next six months. Musk previously said he was pushing for human trials to begin in 2020, a deadline he later changed to 2022, then again to 2023. 

In light of the research delays, Musk may have decided to push his employees to work harder to accelerate Neuralink’s progress, which depends heavily on animal testing, current and former employees said.

“We could enable people to use their hands and walk again in daily life!” Musk wrote to staff at 6:37am (Pacific Time) earlier this year. Ten minutes later, he followed this up with: “In general, we are simply not moving fast enough. It is driving me nuts!”

Musk was also heard on several occasions telling employees to imagine they had a bomb strapped to their heads in an effort to get them to move faster.

In the past, the company has boasted about the quality of the treatment its animals receive, compared to other research facilities. Company leaders have expressed their goal of building a “Monkey Disneyland” in the company’s Austin, Texas, facility and Musk has told employees he wanted the monkeys at his San Francisco Bay Area operation to live in a “monkey Taj Mahal”.

However, this is not the first time that Neuralink has received criticism regarding animal welfare. Following a partnership with the University of California, Davis, an animal rights group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, filed a complaint with the USDA accusing the Neuralink-UC Davis project of botching surgeries that killed monkeys.

The group alleged that surgeons used the wrong surgical glue twice, which led to two monkeys suffering and ultimately dying, while other monkeys had different complications from the implants.

At the time, the company said the deaths of six monkeys were caused by an issue with the glue in a “complication” from the use of an “FDA-approved product.”

Neuralink currently uses sheep, pigs, rats, mice and monkeys for its testing and has not been awarded permission for human trials by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The company has, however, passed all USDA inspections of its facilities.

Elon Musk has also come under scrutiny for his recent $44bn acquisition of Twitter. The deal led to massive company layoffs immediately, changes in the social media's content moderation guidelines and even sparked fears of the platform being knocked offline.

The controversy has also affected the stock value of Tesla and SpaceX, the two other companies owned by the world's richest man. 

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