Quick Take: Behavior Analysts and the Brain-Computer Interface

Neuralink, the Elon Musk company aiming to create a brain-computer interface with clinical applications, this week announced the first human trial of its technology. Here is Neuralink’s description of the trial. Since 2017 Neuralink has been conducting research in which electrodes implanted into animal brains facilitate function in previously nonfunctional body parts. Think for example of paralysis due to spinal injury or neurological disorder, which are the same concerns targeted in Neuralink’s initial trial.

This effort to meld brain and machine raises all sorts of practical, ethical, and existential questions  (The Daily BA did an episode addressing some of these; check it out.) All of that, however, is beyond the scope of this post. I’m curious about the animal research that ultimately made a human trial possible, because it’s very likely that it involved people with behavior analysis training.

I say “likely” because Neurolink’s work is proprietary; therefore it’s hard to find many details about the animal research. We know that one focus was developing the requisite neuroscience, involving novel surgical techniques to implant brain interfaces. Check out this short video about the surgeries.

It’s almost certain as well that the animal research employed behavioral procedures. You can’t simply explain to nonhumans what you want them to do in a research setting, so training them up is required, and the only way to accomplish that is to harness operant learning. This might be for the purpose of teaching subjects to tolerate care routines, as when elephants are taught to hold their mouths open for elephant dental work. Or it might involve training up procedures by which research outcomes are assessed. A familiar example is the drug discrimination procedure through which animals nonverbally “report” on the drugs they’re administered.

I haven’t been able to ascertain precisely how operant procedures are used at Neuralink, but I did find a Neuralink job ad seeking an Animal Care Specialist with behavioral expertise. Here’s an overview from the job announcement:

The animal care team is responsible for providing care for … animals in the areas of husbandry, enrichment, cooperative veterinary medicine, and behavioral health/ training. Animal care specialists will create and implement refinements that ensure animals have access to basic needs, species typical behaviors, agency, and joy (defined by engaging in preferred activities). They will also develop and maintain behavioral intervention plans to maximize wellbeing using methodology based in PRT [Positive Reinforcement Training] and the science of Applied Behavior Analysis. Team members will also coordinate with engineers and researchers [to] conduct voluntary research task sessions and collect data for study usage in order to maintain high welfare standards while furthering Neuralink’s mission.

The ad goes on to specify the following (selected items only):

Job Responsibilities:

  • Develop behavior intervention plans using Behavior Analysis techniques in animals and maintain behavioral data records
  • Conduct training sessions using methodology based in Positive Reinforcement Training

Key qualifications:

  • Adore animals and have experience training them using force free techniques
  • B.A. or B.S.
  • Able to lift 50 lbs
  • Comfortable with exposure to animal bodily fluids, including blood

Preferred qualifications:

  • Experience working in an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) setting with Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) certification

Super interesting, right? On the one hand, Neuralink clearly knows that it’s asking for, and that clearly includes expertise from our corner of the world. On the other hand, the ad seems to gives more attention to animal welfare issues than to research procedures. And they want someone at the Bachelor’s level only, which suggests that perhaps whatever behavioral work is happening at Neuralink is pretty basic.

Yet that reference to assisting with “research task sessions” is intriguing. I wish we knew more!  Because we all benefit from seeing the various ways in which behavioral expertise is used, and in keeping with multiple exemplar training, the more different examples the better. To boot, regardless of what you think of Neuralink, they are kind of a big deal, and the job ad indicates a role for behavior analysis in their efforts. That alone is worth sharing.

I wanted to reach out to one of Neuralink’s behavioral people, but I couldn’t find a staff directory. If someone out there at Neuralink would like to talk about their behavioral work with people who know and appreciate behavioral work, there’s always space for that in this blog! Reach out any time at tscritc@ilstu.edu.