A medical ethics group has asked US stock market regulators to investigate the safety of Elon Musk-owned Neuralink—which just received permission to conduct human trials. The broader aim is to expose what they claim is severe cruelty toward animals in company labs—where at least 280 animals have died. We look at brain-computer interfaces, Neuralink allegations and the broader ethics of animal testing.
Content warning: This Big Story contains descriptions of gruesome animal cruelty.
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Aarthi Ramnath
Umm, what’s a brain-computer interface?
These are devices that decode brain signals and translate them into commands understood by external devices like phones, laptops etc. This is a form of ‘mind control’ that could allow severely paralysed people to type, text loved ones, shop or bank online—just by thinking. There are two kinds: invasive and non-invasive. The invasive kind embedded on top of or even into your brain. The non-invasive variety uses wearable tech instead.
Point to note: Most companies in this area focus on benefits for humans with crippling diseases. Neuralink’s mission, however, is far broader and more ambitious:
While it can help with medical conditions, its ultimate goal is to enable everyone—including healthy people—to connect seamlessly to computers. Its mission statement is to “create a generalised brain interface to restore autonomy to those with unmet medical needs today and unlock human potential tomorrow.
The BCI boom: Research into BCIs is not new—and dates back to the 1970s. But it became a hot area of tech research only in the 2010s. Elon Musk founded his company in 2016. Even Facebook toyed with a headset that would allow you to type. Today, we have BCIs that allow patients to manoeuvre robotic arms. In 2021, BrainGate became the first technology to send wireless commands from brain to computer. This year, a groundbreaking study revealed implants that helped a paralysed person to stand, walk and ascend a ramp with a walker.
Data point to note: Neurological device makers in the US and Europe raised $764 million in venture capital in the first half of this year. One big reason for VC interest: Elon Musk—whose Neuralink has spurred VC interest. Even his fellow billionaires—Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos—have invested in Neuralink’s rival Synchron Inc.
Where we are now: Neuralink has now received permission for human trials—as have two other companies—Synchron and Paradomics. Neuralink’s application had been rejected last year—due to safety concerns about “the device’s lithium battery; the potential for the implant’s tiny wires to migrate to other areas of the brain; and questions over whether and how the device can be removed without damaging brain tissue.” It’s not clear what has changed since.
So they’ve been doing animal trials until now…
Yes. Animal trials are always the first stage of testing any kind of treatment. Synchron and Paradomics have primarily tested their implants on sheep. Neuralink, OTOH, has used a variety of animals—including pigs and monkeys. And Neuralink is the only company under investigation for animal cruelty. The reason: it has a very high ‘kill rate’.
The Neuralink implant: is highly invasive:
Neuralink’s technique involves removing a small, circular portion of bone and replacing it with a chip connected to the brain tissue by flexible, filament-like electrodes—which Musk has described as a “Fitbit for your skull”—and the chief of Tesla, Twitter and SpaceX said earlier this month that, one day, he’ll get the implant himself.
In comparison, Synchron uses a stent inserted via the chest—and sits in the large vein which is next to the part of the brain that controls motor skills. It doesn’t require open brain surgery—which is way more risky.
A high death toll: Neuralink has killed about 1,500 animals after conducting experiments since 2018—including sheep, pigs and monkeys. The company’s stats are way higher than that of its rival Synchron—which has killed only about 80 sheep. The Neuralink number: 280. That said, this in itself doesn’t indicate unethical practices—since euthanizing lab animals is routine in the medical industry.
Far more alarming are testimonies of current and former employees. They reveal a typical tech company under pressure to ‘move fast, break things’—except in this case, the ‘things’ are animals:
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… 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.
Not helping matters: Musk’s anxiety about being left behind. According to a Reuters investigation, he routinely put extreme pressure on his employees—telling them to imagine they had a bomb strapped to their heads or threatening to trigger a “market failure” at Neuralink unless they made more progress.
The appalling fallout: Since 2017, the medical ethics group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) has been spotlighting public records of these Neuralink experiments. The descriptions are horrific:
The findings were gruesome: One rhesus macaque monkey’s nausea was “so severe that the animal vomited and had open sores in her oesophagus before she was finally killed,” according to Ryan Merkley, PCRM’s director of research advocacy. Surgeons used an unapproved adhesive to fill open spaces in an animal’s skull, created from implanting the Neuralink device, “which then caused the animal to suffer greatly due to brain hemorrhaging,” Merkeley said.
A Wired investigation this week uncovered more examples:
For example, in an experimental surgery that took place in December 2019, performed to determine the “survivability” of an implant, an internal part of the device “broke off” while being implanted. Overnight, researchers observed the monkey… scratching at the surgical site, which emitted a bloody discharge, and yanking on a connector that eventually dislodged part of the device. A surgery to repair the issue was carried out the following day, yet fungal and bacterial infections took root… The monkey was euthanized on January 6, 2020.
Data point to note: Out of 23 monkeys that received the implant, 15 have died.
Musk’s response: When the allegations of cruelty surfaced again this month, he tweeted:
No monkey has died as a result of a Neuralink implant. First our early implants, to minimize risk to healthy monkeys, we chose terminal moneys (close to death already)
But former employees told Wired the claim is “ridiculous,” if not a “straight fabrication”:
“We had these monkeys for a year or so before any surgery was performed,” they say. The ex-employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, says that up to a year’s worth of behavioural training was necessary for the program, a time frame that would exempt subjects already close to death.
The fallout: Ironically, Musk’s tweet prompted PCRM to take a new tack in its battle against Neuralink. The group wrote to the SEC—saying that Musk’s tweet contained claims that he knew “to be false”—adding that “investors deserve to hear the truth about the safety, ‘and thus the marketability’ of Neuralink’s speculative product.” PCRM chief Merkel says:
They are claiming they are going to put a safe device on the market, and that’s why you should invest. And we see his lie as a way to whitewash what happened in these exploratory studies.
Point to note: Unlike its rivals, Neuralink has been under investigation for its animal testing. The US Department of Agriculture launched a probe in December 2022, to look into violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
But, but, but: This doesn’t mean Neuralink is in any kind of serious trouble. The US law focuses primarily on protecting companion animals—like dogs or cats. It doesn’t say much about what you can or cannot do to an animal in a lab—and merely requires research facilities to set up internal committees to monitor their own practices.
Neuralink’s testing could well be par for the course. After all, it is perfectly legal to suture baby monkeys’ eyelids shut to study how they process faces. Even when there are violations, the punishment is limited to a fine—not criminal charges, or revoking or suspending licences—which would happen if, say, you ran an illegal dog-fighting ring etc.
Wondering about India? We were the first South Asian country to ban testing of cosmetics on animals in 2013. And a recent amendment to the animal cruelty laws aims to end animal testing—encouraging researchers to use alternatives like synthetic organoids. But there is no roadmap or resources to achieve any of it.
The bottomline: is best summed up by Vox:
Animal testing is often justified using a kind of moral math: It’s worth killing X number of animals if it leads to outcome Y, like helping paralyzed people walk or blind people see. But the problem is that we rarely know the number for X — it could take experimenting on one more animal, or millions more, for Neuralink to achieve its goal... The same goes for inventing important new medical devices, pharmaceutical drugs, and vaccines. And of course, achieving outcome Y is almost always uncertain.
We don’t even know the value of X—as no one keeps tabs on how many animals are killed in labs around the world. Also: Most treatments that clear the animal-testing stage fail human clinical trials.
Wired and Reuters conducted independent investigations into allegations against Neuralink. Vox is best in looking at the big picture on animal testing—and limits of the law. Washington Post looks at Paradomics—while CNBC reports on Synchron. Mint offers a thoughtful column on the risks of neural implants for humans.