Neuralink, a medical device company owned by Elon Musk, is currently under federal investigation for animal welfare violations, and internal staff have raised concerns about the way that rushed animal testing at the company is leading to needless suffering and deaths.
Neuralink is currently working on a brain implant that could one day help paralyzed people to walk again and cure other types of neurological problems. Reuters reports that a federal probe was recently opened by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General following a request by a federal prosecutor. It is focused on violations of the Animal Welfare act, which is aimed at regulating the way that certain animals are treated during research.
Reviews of Neuralink documents and interviews with a series of current and former employees revealed increasing employee concerns about the company’s animal testing practices. Some have complained that pressure from Musk to accelerate development has caused botched experiments and failed tests that need to be repeated, which is leading to additional unnecessary animal deaths.
Although it is not known if the federal investigation involves the same problems that employees identified in their interviews, records show that the company has killed around 1500 animals, including hundreds of pigs, monkeys and sheep, in experiments since 2018. However, these numbers are only considered rough estimates because the company is not known to keep exact records about the number of animals that are being tested and killed. Neuralink also reportedly carries out research on mice and rats.
Although this is a high volume of animal deaths, it is not necessarily a sign that they are violating any rules. Current U.S. regulations do not specify the number of animals companies can use for research and gives scientists a generous amount of leeway in determining how animals can be used for experiments. American companies routinely use animals as subjects in experiments aimed at advancing healthcare; these animals are usually killed after the experiments so their bodies can be examined for research purposes.
Employees describe stressful atmosphere, push for quicker results that is leading to mistakes
However, some current and former employees maintain that the number of animals being killed is higher than necessary because of Musk’s demands for quicker research. Employees described an atmosphere of highly stressed and poorly prepared staffers who are scrambling in an effort to meet deadlines and making last-minute changes prior to surgeries that put animals at greater risk.
Neuralink’s progress is heavily dependent on the results of animal testing. Musk has reportedly told employees on more than one occasion to picture a bomb strapped on their heads to motivate them to move faster. Some employees also say that he threatened to shut down their operations if they do not progress more quickly. Several researchers say they advocated for more traditional approaches to testing that could keep animal deaths down but were told it was not a possibility because of Musk’s demands for quicker progress. Two individuals even said they left the company because of their concerns about the way it conducts animal research.
Neuralink has already missed several deadlines for winning regulatory approval for conducting clinical trials in humans, while rivals such as Synchron appear to be having more success. That company is working on a different type of implant they can allow paralyzed people to type and text simply by thinking. They have killed around 80 sheep as part of their research.
Musk has said in the past that he does not like the idea of using animals for research and wants to at least ensure that research animals are happy while they are alive. However, numerous animals have been suffering from various complications related to the testing, such as using the wrong surgical glue. The company admitted killing six monkeys due to health problems caused by experiments on the advice of veterinary staff. In one particularly egregious incident, 25 out of the 60 pigs used in a study had devices of the wrong size implanted into their heads. Those with the knowledge of the situation told Reuters that this mistake could have been prevented with better preparation.
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