Elon Musk's company Neuralink has reportedly run into legal trouble and is under a federal probe over its animal trial program. Musk's Neuralink has been working to create a brain chip that would help people with paralysis to walk again.
Reuters on December 6 reported that Musk's Neuralink was being probed for "potential animal-welfare violations". The report added that there were complaints from the Neuralink staff that hastened testing was causing "needless suffering and deaths".
Last week, Musk had said that Neuralink could begin to test the motor cortex technology in humans in as soon as six months, CNBC reported. The world's richest man also said that he was planning to get one of the implants himself, a claim that he reiterated on Twitter later.
"Obviously, we want to be extremely careful and certain that it will work well before putting a device in a human, but we're submitted, I think, most of our paperwork to the FDA," CNBC quoted him as saying.
Here is all you need to know about Musk's company and why it has run into trouble:
What does Neuralink do?
Neuralink is Musk's health tech venture, launched in 2016, to develop brain chips that can be implanted in the skulls of people who are paralysed to help them walk. The chip is marketed as a product that will help the blind see and reduce movement deficits in Parkinson's disease.
The venture is developing a Neuralink app to help people control keyboards and mouse directly through brain activity.
"We are creating the future of brain-computer interfaces: building devices now that have the potential to help people with paralysis and inventing new technologies that could expand our abilities, our community, and our world," the Neuralink website describes its work.
In April 2021, Musk had tweeted saying that Neuralink products would enable a paralysed person to "use a smartphone with their mind faster than someone using thumbs."
"Later versions will be able to shunt signals from Neuralinks in the brain to Neuralinks in body motor/sensory neuron clusters, thus enabling, for example, paraplegics to walk again," he had said in another tweet then.
In 2021, Neuralink posted a video that showed a 9-year-old macaque fitted with the brain chip playing a video game. This was one of the several experiments cited by Neuralink as successful tests on animals. In a presentation webcast last week, the company showcased improvements in the speed and capabilities of the chip.
Why is Neuralink under probe?
Reuters on Tuesday reported that a federal probe against Musk's company was initiated in recent months by the US Department of Agriculture's Inspector General at the request of a federal prosecutor.
The report also quoted former and current employees of the company saying that "botched up" experiments following Musk's orders to accelerate the development of the chip had caused an "increase in the number of animals being tested and killed."
Records reviewed by it, Reuters reported, showed that at least 1,500 animals had died because of experiments by Neuralink.
While Musk has not addressed the recent report publicly, in February 2022 Neuralink had addressed allegations in a blog post titled "Neuralink's Commitment to Animal Welfare". The statement read, "Recent articles have raised questions around Neuralink's use of research animals at the University of California, Davis Primate Center. It is important to note that these accusations come from people who oppose any use of animals in research. Currently, all novel medical devices and treatments must be tested in animals before they can be ethically trialed in humans. Neuralink is not unique in this regard. At Neuralink, we are absolutely committed to working with animals in the most humane and ethical way possible."
The vague post did not acknowledge deaths directly from its experiments but said, "Terminal procedures involve the humane euthanasia of an anesthetized animal at the completion of the surgery."
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) had said in February that it filed a complaint with the USDA against the University of California, Davis, "for violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act related to invasive and deadly brain experiments conducted on 23 monkeys". It claimed that UC Davis received more than $1.4 million from Neuralink to carry out these experiments. The PCRM also filed a lawsuit, it said, at the Yolo County Superior Court.
PCRM said that it had reviewed 600 pages of "disturbing documents" that were released after a lawsuit filed by it in 2021. It said that the animals had portions of their skulls removed and also part of their brains had been damaged. The body said that the dying animals were not provided adequate medical care.