Story so far: From animal rights activists and neuroscientists to medical advocates and technologists, experts are watching the progress of the brain-machine interface development company whose co-founder is billionaire Elon Musk.
Unlike Musk’s other companies Tesla and SpaceX, where new updates and products are relatively frequent, Neuralink is still in the starting stages of trying to implant brain chips in animals, with the end goal of putting them in humans.
The question now is what Musk plans to show the world during his November 30 Neuralink show-and-tell.
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What does Musk plan to reveal at the event?
Everything is under wraps. However, there is plenty of intrigue as a large section of Neuralink’s founding team has left the company which started in 2016.
Though Musk wanted regulatory approval to start human trials of the brain chip by the end of 2020, he is around two years behind schedule. However, in early 2022, The Guardian reported that Neuralink was looking to recruit a “clinical trial director.”
Those tuning in to the show-and-tell on November 30 - if it goes forward - will be expecting an update about regulatory permissions for human trials.
Why was it delayed?
The event was originally meant to be held on October 31, but Musk announced that a show-and-tell would take place on November 30 instead. He posted this message on October 23, around the time the Tesla billionaire was grappling with the takeover of Twitter before the court-ordered deadline of October 28.
It has been some time since a significant update from the brain-machine interface company. The last video by Neuralink, posted on April 9, 2021, showed the macaque monkey “Pager” who reportedly had a Neuralink chip in each side of his brain, playing a simple video game on the screen, by seemingly using just his mind.
The company said that Pager managed “outstanding brain-computer interface performance,” while being his normal self and not needing any restraints. A pig named Gertrude was also brain chipped, according to a Neuralink video.
While impressive to watch on YouTube, this is a very different experience from, for example, witnessing a healthy Neuralink-implanted animal perform tasks live, or a brain-chipped animal leveraging AI technology with just its mind.
With Neuralink’s possible use cases including the treatment of conditions such as dementia or spinal trauma, medical experts will be expecting a report about this area of research as well.
What is the controversy surrounding the project?
Implanting machine chips in the brains of animals, with the end goal of implanting them in humans, is a process fraught with legal, medical, and ethical dangers. In the case of Neuralink, graphic reports of animal harm and monkey deaths by euthanasia have shocked people worldwide.
This year, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine group sued UC Davis, where Neuralink’s experiments on monkeys were previously taking place, for not releasing the photos and videos of monkeys being used in the experiments. The PCRM claimed that monkeys suffered painful symptoms as a result of the experiments, and even died. Citing UC Davis records, they alleged that lab workers cut open monkeys’ skulls and later filled these holes with an “unapproved adhesive” called BioGlue, which leaked into the brain.
“In one monkey, the use of BioGlue caused bleeding in her brain, and she vomited so much from the resulting side effects that she developed open sores in her esophagus,” stated a PCRM press release on September 28.
The PCRM also claimed in its release that UC Davis acknowledged it had hundreds of pictures relating to monkeys in the Neuralink experiments, which it did not want to release.
Neuralink had published a general statement about the “humane and ethical” treatment of its animals, as well as several deaths related to the experiments.
“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,” it reported.
The alleged causes of death included a BioGlue-related complication, the failure of a device, and four suspected infections that were related to the device, said Neuralink.
The company, however, stated that its BioGlue was an “FDA-approved product.” It said that all its animal work at UC Davis was approved by the university’s animal care regulator as set down by Federal Law, and with veterinary staff overseeing the procedures. Neuralink posted a video two years ago, showing its pigs being fed and playing with their handlers.
The partnership between the two companies ended in 2020.
Have other researchers done anything similar with animals?
Macaques are standard animals in the medical experimentation sector in the U.S. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, China was the U.S.’ major cynomolgus macaque supplier, but Cambodia has now taken its place, according to the research and news outlet Science.org.
The legal breeding of monkeys overseas, their transport to the U.S., registration, and subsequent treatment in research facilities - these are all issues that animal rights activists and regulators are scrutinising. However, any legal action against the suppliers of lab animals means U.S.-based laboratories struggling to source the test subjects they need before they can move on to human trials.
What is the law against such use of animals?
The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which became a law in 1966, covers how animals should be used for research in the U.S.
The legislation stresses on “ humane standards” when it comes to the transport, handling, care, and treatment of animals in research facilities. Apart from food, sanitation, shelter, ventilation and other such basic requirements, research facilities are also tasked with ensuring that “animal pain and distress are minimized,” and making sure of the “appropriate use” of anaesthetic or even euthanasia.
Veterinary doctors must be consulted before procedures that could cause pain to the animals, and researchers must maintain “established veterinary medical standards and nursing procedures.”
Musk will have to address the concerns raised by researchers and animal lovers on or after the show-and-tell event.