This is rather disturbing, even for those of us who (by now) are not so easily disturbed.
From Andrew Paul, writing for Popular Science:
On Tuesday, Elon Musk’s controversial brain-computer interface startup Neuralink announced it received an independent review board’s approval to begin a six-year-long human clinical trial. Neuralink’s application for quadriplegic volunteers, particularly those suffering from spinal column injuries and ALS, is now open. Less than a day later, however, a Wired investigation revealed grisly details surrounding the deaths of the monkeys used in Neuralink’s experiments–deaths that Elon Musk has denied were directly caused by the implants.
Almost simultaneously a medical ethics organization focused on animal rights filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission urging SEC to investigate Neuralink for alleged “efforts to mislead investors about the development history and safety of the device.” In Thursday’s email to PopSci, the committee urged potential Neuralink volunteers to reconsider their applications.
The Wired investigative piece, by Dhruv Mehrotra and Dell Cameron, is here. According to Mehrotra and Cameron, the ultimate purpose of this brain implantation device “was to revolutionize prostheses and engineer an implant that would allow human brains to communicate wirelessly with artificial devices, and even each other.” As a result, the device could conceivably “enable people with paralysis to control a computer keyboard or cursor with their thoughts.” As the Wired authors note, “Recent filings show the company has raised more than $280 million from outside investors.”
According to the Wired article, for its experiments conducted from September, 2017 to late 2020, the Neuralink team was assisted by researchers from the California National Primate Research Center (CNPRC , a “federally funded bioresearch facility at UC Davis.” Wired obtain the veterinary records from Neuralink’s experimental testing order to investigate Musk’s claims about twelve macaque monkeys that reportedly died during those “experimentations.”
From that article:
Musk first acknowledged the deaths of the macaques on September 10 in a reply to a user on his social networking app X (formerly Twitter). He denied that any of the deaths were “a result of a Neuralink implant” and said the researchers had taken care to select subjects who were already “close to death.” Relatedly, in a presentation last fall Musk claimed that Neuralink’s animal testing was never “exploratory,” but was instead conducted to confirm fully formed scientific hypotheses. “We are extremely careful,” he said.
The actual records, however, suggest Musk’s assertion of being “extremely careful” is … open to interpretation, to say the least.
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, identified only as “Animal 20” by UC Davis, 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. Vet records note that neither infection was likely to be cleared, in part because the implant was covering the infected area. The monkey was euthanized on January 6, 2020.
Additional veterinary reports show the condition of a female monkey called “Animal 15” during the months leading up to her death in March 2019. Days after her implant surgery, she began to press her head against the floor for no apparent reason; a symptom of pain or infection, the records say. Staff observed that though she was uncomfortable, picking and pulling at her implant until it bled, she would often lie at the foot of her cage and spend time holding hands with her roommate.
Animal 15 began to lose coordination, and staff observed that she would shake uncontrollably when she saw lab workers. Her condition deteriorated for months until the staff finally euthanized her. A necropsy report indicates that she had bleeding in her brain and that the Neuralink implants left parts of her cerebral cortex “focally tattered.”
(The authors of the Wired article recently updated their reporting, indicating it was unclear whether “survivability” as referenced in the report concerning “Animal 20” referred to the survivability of the animal or of the implant itself).
Another monkey reportedly died after the screws affixing the cranial implant came loose, according to Wired’s investigation. As explained in Paul’s Popular Science report:
In addition to neurological, psychological, and physical issues stemming from the test implants, some implants reportedly malfunctioned purely due to the mechanical installation of titanium plates and bone screws. In these instances, the cranial openings allegedly often grew infected and were immensely painful to the animals, and some implants became so loose they could be easily dislodged.
A former Neuralink employee interviewed for the Wired article under grant of anonymity also dispute Musk’s claims that the monkeys were “close to death” at the outset. As Mehrotra and Cameron report, the employee called that claim ‘ridiculous’ and noted that the behavioral training for the monkeys took up to a year, suggesting that the monkeys were in fact not terminally ill. A researcher at CNPRC also pointed out that the relative youth of the monkeys tested raised doubts that they could have been “close to death.” According to Brett Wilkins, writing for Common Dreams, the medical records (some of which are illustrated here) do not support Musk’s claims he claim that the monkeys were terminally ill.
As Mehrotra and Cameron report, the FDA had previously rejected Neuralink’s application to conduct human trials, citing concerns about the device’s lithium battery, the potential for the device’s wiring to “migrate” into other parts of the human brain, and questions about whether removing the device could cause brain damage.
Nevertheless, FDA approval was granted in May of this year. Of course, one can imagine the degree of hope that those people living with quadriplegia or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) must feel for the opportunity to take advantage of such technology, if it can be successfully developed and employed (Musk told Fox Business this week that the technology “ultimately has the potential to restore full body movement”). And — truth be told — if the public familiarized itself with the animal testing that routinely goes on in commercial and medical research settings they would probably unsettled at what can and often does occur.
But the question here is whether Musk was being honest about what such developmental testing for Neuralink’s device did or did not do to its subjects. In response to the complaint described above, the SEC is deciding whether to open an investigation. If it does, as Mehrotra and Cameron note, it will be “the third federal probe linked to Neuralink’s animal testing.”
In the meantime, as explained by Ryan Merkley, director of research and advocacy for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (quoted in Paul’s Popular Science article), prospective volunteers for Neuralink’s clinical trials should have “serious concerns.”