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  1. News Release

  2. Jul 19, 2023

Elon Musk Company Neuralink Given Free Pass for Animal Welfare Act Violations, USDA Reveals in Letter to Congress

Under a Controversial Policy, Agency Wiped Violations From Laboratories’ Public Records

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company Neuralink violated the federal Animal Welfare Act and received a free pass from the agency responsible for enforcing the law. That’s what the U.S. Department of Agriculture told members of Congress last week in a response to letters sent in December and May. Those letters, led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), requested updates from the agency about a reported USDA Office of Inspector General investigation into Neuralink and recent revelations that the company’s internal animal research oversight board was stacked with members who have conflicts of interest. In his July 14 response, USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack neither confirmed nor denied the existence of an investigation, but he did confirm that a troubling 2019 incident would have been recorded as a violation of the law if not for the existence of a since rescinded agency policy designed to remove such incidents from public records. The agency agreed to stop applying the policy in 2021 as part of a lawsuit settlement.

The August 2019 incident involved a male rhesus macaque identified only as “Animal 8” by the University of California, Davis, where Neuralink paid to conduct experiments from 2017 to 2020. According to records obtained by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine through a public records lawsuit against UC Davis, a company neurosurgeon drilled two holes in Animal 8’s skull, implanted electrodes in his brain, and used bone screws to attach electronics to his head. The holes were then filled with a surgical adhesive called BioGlue. Soon thereafter, Neuralink and UC Davis staff killed Animal 8. 

BioGlue had never been approved for use in the experiment, which is a serious violation—or “noncompliance” in USDA’s language—of the Animal Welfare Act. Rather than cite the violation on a publicly available inspection report, USDA applied its policy known as Incentives for Identifying, Reporting, Correcting, and Preventing Noncompliance with the AWA, which hid from the public an unknown number of violations by laboratories nationwide.

“While I appreciate USDA’s stated concern for the serious allegations leveled against Elon Musk’s Neuralink, when we are dealing with such a grotesque disregard for animal welfare and obvious conflicts of interest, there must be greater urgency to hold this company accountable,” says Rep. Blumenauer. “I urge the Office of the Inspector General to quickly conclude their investigation and make public their findings.”

In his recent letter, Vilsack did not address an earlier, even more troubling incident involving BioGlue. In September 2018, a Neuralink neurosurgeon drilled into the skull of a female rhesus macaque known only as “Animal 21” and filled holes with the adhesive. The next day, she lost coordination and balance, experienced paralysis in both legs, and was suffering from “depression.” The day after that, she was seen “gasping/retching” and “collapse[d] from exhaustion/fatigue.”When staff finally euthanized her and conducted a necropsy, they discovered BioGlue was “covering and compressing a large area of the left cerebrum” and blood had built up on the surface of her brain. They also found “acute” ulcers in her esophagus “likely due to vomiting” and blood in her stomach. BioGlue had never been approved for use in the study, and it remains unclear why USDA did not cite Neuralink and UC Davis for this serious violation. It is also unclear why USDA found the September 2018 use of BioGlue to be a violation but not the August 2019 use.

“Once again, regulators seem to be turning a blind eye to Neuralink’s crude, cruel practices,” says Ryan Merkley, director of research advocacy at the nonprofit Physicians Committee. “USDA is bending over backward to give Neuralink and labs in general a free pass.”

The Physicians Committee has suggested that implanted devices like Neuralink’s come with a myriad of problems, including being difficult to repair and having a high potential for severe medical complications in patients. The group has urgedNeuralink to halt its animal experiments and to instead focus on improving noninvasive brain-machine interfaces.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reportedly approved the company in May 2023 to begin limited human clinical trials, a significant number of medical devices that begin clinical trials never reach the market. 

To speak with Mr. Merkley or to see a copy of the letter from Secretary Vilsack or the original documents from UC Davis, please contact Reina Pohl at 202-527-7326 or rpohl [at] (rpohl[at]pcrm[dot]org).

Media Contact

Reina Pohl, MPH



Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in education and research.

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