April 12th 2021
On Friday April 9th, various news agencies (e.g., here) were abuzz with reporting of Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Twitter exploded with comments and re-tweets and the video example has been viewed over 4.7 million times.
It is obvious that NeuraLink involves animals and it is a clear example of how basic research can lead to breakthroughs that benefit humans in substantive ways. Moreover, the basic research underlying NeuraLink depended on decades of animal research relating to understanding brain structure/function relationships as well as developing and refining methods for stimulation—e.g., here—to name a few.
According to the NeuraLink blog the history of this particular device is quite interesting in terms of the animal research that was used to support its development:
“In a 2019 white paper, we outlined the design of our novel electrodes and our unique surgical approach, along with preliminary electrophysiology obtained in a rodent model….In 2020….we demonstrated its functionality by recording somatosensory (touch) signals in pigs exploring their environment….This demonstration was a small but important step towards our vision of providing direct neural control of a computer cursor to people with paralysis. Swine will continue to be an important animal to validate the safety of the Link. However, to develop and advance the functionality of the Link, it is necessary for us to employ an animal model whose brain similarity (homology) and behavioral abilities enable the development of a hand and arm-based motor cortical BMI*. The rhesus macaque model allows us to design, validate, and advance the performance and robustness of a complete “closed-loop” motor BMI system intended to improve the quality of life of people with neurological disorders.” [emphases added] *Brain Machine Interface
It is worth noting that animal research will continue to be needed. Neuralink is currently focusing on invasive recordings in spinal patients where access to spinal neurons receiving and relaying information to the brain is possible. It will be many years before non-invasive approaches and technologies improve to be able to achieve some of what is now possible through invasive studies pioneered in nonhuman animals. The non-invasive technologies will also require validation with animal research before they can be taken forward in humans (as Speaking of Research has written about in more detail recently).
As would be expected, those opposed to animal research, such as Dr Katy Taylor, director of science and regulatory affairs at Cruelty Free International, are against the animal research associated with NeuraLink despite the clear benefits to humans. She states:
“It beggars belief that animals are being used in this type of grotesque curiosity-driven experiment. In fact, 57% of experiments in universities are now believed to be in the area of basic research, much of it driven by nothing more than curiosity and certainly not required by law.”
Paradoxically, and as is the case with many of those who characterize themselves as opposed to animal research, they fail to address the clear quality of life benefits that would be afforded to humans in relation to the harm of not doing such research—the harm/benefit analysis (EU/UK), risk/benefit analysis (US). Moreover they fail to attend to the high quality of care afforded to animals used in a research setting. According to the NeuraLink blog:
“Like all animals, pigs and non-human primates deserve our utmost respect and appreciation. Every aspect of their care is thoroughly evaluated by a team of veterinarians and behaviorists, ensuring access to high quality nutrition, socialization, and enriched spaces to perform species-specific behaviors. For example, Pager lives with his best mate, Code. They enjoy swinging from their treehouse and napping in their hammocks after an engaging gaming session. All of the behavioral tasks that Pager and his friends participate in are voluntary, and trained using positive reinforcement. Pager’s first choice in a preference test is often banana smoothie, and some days it is strawberries!” [emphases added]
Lastly, Taylor mischaracterizes (or does not understand) basic research. Basic research is not merely done on a whim or approved to proceed to fulfill curiosities. While it is true that scientific curiosity drives and fuels discoveries and technological advances such as those that make the Neuralink vision possible, federally-funded (and much privately-funded) research is hypothesis-driven and must be justified prior to careful review and approval. Animal research requires ethical approval and has legal protections, thus suggesting that such work is “not required by law” is misleading. It is quite clear that those opposed to animal research will continue to do so regardless of the fact that #AnimalResearch saves and improves the lives of humans and other animals.
~Speaking of Research