An association of doctors opposed to animal abuse in research has filed a complaint against Neuralink, the company of billionaire Elon Musk which is trying to develop brain-machine implants. According to the complaint, which also targets the University of California at Davis (UC Davis, in the United States) where the animal experiments took place, the monkeys who received the brain implant suffered from various health problems, calling into question the care received by these animals. In addition, the organization denounces that the researchers of Neuralink would not have respected the scientific protocols validated by the university, using products harmful to the monkeys. Science and Future asked Jeremy Beckham, research coordinator for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), the organization behind the complaint against Neuralink.
“All the monkeys who received the implants lived in a miserable state”
The PCRM organization filed a first complaint against Neuralink and UC Davis in September 2020, through which they gained access to a large number of university documents, including research protocols and reports detailing the experiments and the health status of monkeys. “We reviewed about three years of reports regarding Neuralink research at UC Davis, where it was pretty obvious that all of the monkeys that received the implants were living in a miserable state, with repeated bleeding and infections, which raised the suspicion that they did not have access to good veterinary follow-up, summarizes Jeremy Beckham. In some cases, the monkeys had seizures right after implantation. And, according to the researchers, the monkeys appeared depressed.”
Contacted by Science and Future, the university defends itself from these accusations, ensuring optimal monitoring of the monkeys: “UC Davis indeed had a collaboration with Neuralink, which ended in 2020. The research protocols were validated by the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). This work was carried out by Neuralink researchers at the facilities of the California National Center for Primate Research at UC Davis. The university provided veterinary care with continuous monitoring of the animals. When an incident occurred, it was reported to the IACUC, which ordered any necessary protocol or training changes.”
But according to the complaint, this suffering would have been exacerbated by a failure to respect the protocols put in place. In the reports, it is written that the Neuralink researchers used a surgical glue called BioGlue, produced by the company CryoLife, which was not included in the research protocols validated by the university. This glue is FDA approved to suture blood vessels, but it is not recommended for brain surgery and according to the FDA, it must not come into contact with cerebral vessels or nerves. “The BioGlue flows into the brain and damages it, leading to the death of the animal”, warns Jeremy Beckham.
These accusations are disputed by Neuralink. In a lengthy statement published in their blog, where they claim that these animals were already in poor health before implantation. While confirming that one of the monkeys had to be euthanized following the use of BioGlue, four others due to infections, and one due to implant failure.
A new complaint to access missing documents
The PCRM association has filed a second complaint, with the aim of having access to photos and videos of the experiments on these monkeys, in order to determine the extent of the abuse observed in the written reports. They did not have access to these documents after the first complaint because the university claimed that all photo and video recordings had been taken away by Neuralink researchers. “Neuralink is a private company, so it’s not obligated to share these documents, but UC Davis is a public entity that has that obligation and can’t get away with it so easily. They are required by law to keep records of all research that takes place at their facilities. Especially since university researchers were involved in the design and execution of this research, according to the documents we obtained, so they cannot put all the responsibility on the side of Neuralink. The responsibility is shared”, explains Jeremy Beckham.
Neuralink believed its research would be kept secret
According to PCRM, Neuralink had UC Davis sign a confidentiality clause, believing to protect any information concerning this research. “I think they were convinced that this would be enough to keep their research secret, but a private deal is not above federal law!, adds Jeremy Beckham. And it looks like it was when they realized their research could become public because of court rulings that they decided to terminate the contract with UC Davis. It’s speculation, but the timing is suspicious: we made our first complaint in September 2020 and two months later, in November, the collaboration between Neuralink and UC Davis ended.”
A questionable video
At the end of this collaboration, seven monkeys that had not yet been implanted (out of a total of 23) were sent to the Neuralink facilities, which would have continued the research on site. One of these monkeys is the one you can see playing Pong in the video from Neuralink published in April 2021. But this video raises some questions. “This monkey seems to be fine, which is surprising considering the condition of the implanted monkeys in UC Davis. This would mean that the Neuralink researchers have succeeded in mastering their technique and the care of animals in their labs, whereas they had not succeeded a few months earlier at university. But we must not forget that this primate research center at UC Davis is one of the most renowned in the world, with several thousand monkeys, experts with a lot of experience and a lot of funding, he recalls. That It makes no sense to think that researchers less experienced than those at Davis have managed to do better in the premises of a start-up like Neuralink, which have nothing to do with those of the university. It seems a little convenient that the monkeys start to get better when the general public can no longer see them, and they are hidden behind Neuralink’s private sphere”.
Also, the technology used with this monkey seems different from that approved in the protocols at UC Davis. In effect, the implant is described as having a small casing on the animal’s skull. However, this box is not visible in the video. “So that would mean that in a few months, the Neuralink researchers not only improved the care of the monkeys and their implantation technique, but also that they had time to improve their technology. It seems very implausible”, he adds.
The truth in a few months, maybe
In the United States, private companies have the right to conduct experiments on primates, subject to the animal welfare law of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). “But since they have no obligation to publish their data, it is almost impossible, except if there is a whistleblower, to know if they respect the law or not.”, regrets Jeremy Beckham. But thanks to this collaboration with a public entity like UC Davis, we have rare access to research carried out by Neuralink. “The USDA has confirmed to us that they have opened an investigation, he tells us. Normally, they will send an inspector who will publish his report in about six months. And the complaint against UC Davis could take about a year, unless the university decides to proceed out of court and return the requested documents to us. In the first complaint, they did so after three months. But I believe that this time they will fight harder not to give us these photos and videos, because this material could affect their image.”
With this complaint in the middle of the road, will Elon Musk succeed his bet to test his implant in humans in 2022? “Considering the sorry state of the monkeys who received the Neuralink implant, I highly doubt that they would be ready to try to do it in humans, beware Jeremy Beckham. These teams are used to making promises they can’t keep.” To do these tests, Neuralink will be obliged to seek validation from the FDA, making its data public. At that point, we may be able to get to the bottom of this matter. But only if Elon Musk manages to meet his deadlines.