Elon Musk’s Neuralink has denied allegations of animal cruelty in their attempt to develop a brain-computer interface but confirmed that some had been euthanized for various reasons.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) — a nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to the use of animals in research, amongst others — filed a federal complaint alleging animal cruelty to the Department of Agriculture last week.
PCRM accused researchers of violating the Animal Welfare Act while testing Neuralink chips on 23 macaque monkeys housed at the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC), a primate research facility at the University of California, Davis, between 2017 and 2020.
The monkeys, according to PCRM, all experienced “extreme suffering as a result of inadequate animal care and the highly invasive experimental head implants.”
Neuralink and UC Davis began their partnership to conduct animal-based research in 2017. In 2020, Neuralink completed its in-house facility and moved “some” unimplanted macaques, including Pager, who later starred in a pong-playing video that purportedly demonstrated the implant’s ability to connect the brain to a computer.
Neuralink has stated the research could eventually help those with neurological impairments use computers with their minds, while Musk, the neurotechnology company’s co-founder and owner, has also said future breakthroughs could lead to “superhuman cognition.”
PCRM’s complaint is based on nearly 600 pages of “disturbing” documents, which were released after the nonprofit filed an initial public records lawsuit in 2021. The group filed a second public records lawsuit on Feb. 10 to force UC Davis to release photos and videos of their experiments, including one in which researchers “removed pieces of the skulls of rhesus macaque monkeys and inserted electrodes into the animals’ brains.”
In a press release, PCRM said the monkeys were caged alone and had steel posts screwed to their skulls. They also suffered “facial trauma,” seizures after brain implants, and recurring infections at implant sites, according to the group.
UC Davis, which reportedly received more than $1.4 million to run the experiments, declined to release records, stating they belonged to Neuralink. As a private company, Neuralink, headquartered in San Francisco, is not subject to California’s Public Records Act.
Jeremy Beckham, a research advocacy coordinator with the PCRM, told Insider that seven out of the 23 macaques in UC Davis had survived and were being transferred to Neuralink’s facility. This reportedly marked the end of the partnership.
“The documents reveal that monkeys had their brains mutilated in shoddy experiments and were left to suffer and die. It’s no mystery why Elon Musk and the university want to keep photos and videos of this horrific abuse hidden from the public,” Beckham said in the press release.
UC Davis spokesperson Andy Fell confirmed their Neuralink partnership in a new statement to KCRA 3. He pointed out that the researchers involved were those from Neuralink, while university staff provided veterinary care.
“The research protocols were thoroughly reviewed and approved by the campus’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC),” Fell said. “The work was conducted by Neuralink researchers in facilities at the California National Primate Research Center at UC Davis. UC Davis staff provided veterinary care including round-the-clock monitoring of experimental animals. When an incident occurred, it was reported to the IACUC, which mandated training and protocol changes as needed.”
In the wake of the accusations, Neuralink released a blog post denying practices of animal cruelty. The company said it was “absolutely committed to working with animals in the most humane and ethical way possible.”
For one, it addressed an assumption in PCRM’s complaint that one of the monkeys had missing fingers and toes “possibly from self-mutilation or some other unspecified trauma.”
“In addition to pre-existing conditions these animals may have happened to lose digits throughout their life from conflicts with other monkeys. Missing digits are often a result of rhesus macaques resolving conflict through aggressive interactions with one another,” Neuralink explained. “No such injuries occurred at any time to animals housed at UC Davis while part of Neuralink’s project.”
The company went on to highlight its adherence to safety protocols. It stressed that the use of every animal was “extensively planned” and “considered to balance scientific discovery with the ethical use of animals.”
While Neuralink denied any participation in torture, it confirmed the death of some animals through euthanasia — mainly for data collection and out of medical advice.
“As part of this work, two animals were euthanized at planned end dates to gather important histological data, and six animals were euthanized at the medical advice of the veterinary staff at UC Davis. These reasons included one surgical complication involving the use of the FDA-approved product (BioGlue), one device failure, and four suspected device-associated infections, a risk inherent with any percutaneous medical device. In response we developed new surgical protocols and a fully implanted device design for future surgeries.”
Neuralink explained that novel surgeries typically involve dead animals or those who fall into terminal procedures. The latter reportedly involve animals deemed by the veterinary staff to be “healthy enough for one anesthetic event but may not have proper quality of life due to a pre-existing condition.”
For this reason, Neuralink said its first experiments involved cadavers and terminal procedures. “These animals were assigned to our project on the day of the surgery for our terminal procedure because they had a wide range of pre-existing conditions unrelated to our research,” the company added.