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Wisconsin monkey wars 2.0 revive ethical research debate

Wisconsin monkey wars 2.0 revive ethical research debate

Picture of Susan Gilbert

A post here last week reported on protests at UCLA over experiments in which primates were given methamphetamine to study addiction and pregnant monkeys were injected with bisphenol A to see the effects on their babies.

Halfway across the country, the University of Wisconsin has attracted press coverage and outrage because of new research that involves separating newborn rhesus monkeys from their mothers a day after they’re born, frightening them with live snakes, and regularly scanning their brains to compare them with the brains of a control group of baby monkeys not subject to such traumas. After a year, the monkeys will be killed and their brain tissue analyzed. Here is the protocol.

Controversy over the use of primates in biomedical research may not be in the news every day, but it never completely goes away. It raises key questions: How should we balance the harm to the animals – especially humans’ closest relatives – against the potential benefit to humans? Is experimenting on primates the only way to get the desired information? Are there alternative research models and approaches that could be used or explored?

The new University of Wisconsin study touches a nerve because it is similar to studies done there in the 1950’s and 60s by Harry Harlow that, to many, typify cruel and unethical animal research. Baby monkeys were kept in isolation with surrogate “mothers” made of wire mesh or cloth and studied to see what a lack of love did to them. The baby monkeys “pined away, staring at the wall with lifeless eyes,” said a review of a biography of Harlow by Deborah Blum. To the field of developmental psychology, Harlow’s studies yielded foundational evidence of the importance of maternal affection to child development.

The purpose of the new Wisconsin research is to use 21st century tools such as brain imaging and molecular analysis to test the hypothesis that adversity early in life changes brain circuitry in ways that results in anxiety. Ned Kalin, director of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who is leading the study, believes that it will generate important new knowledge. “Through our studies, we have identified specific altered function of genes in the brain region that is overactive in young individuals with extreme anxiety,” he told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism for an article in

The article continued:

“Kalin speculates that these alterations occur within the first months of life.  Ultimately, he hopes to discover the neural pathways and genetic expressions that link malfunctioning stress signals, possibly leading to new treatments for children at risk of depression, substance abuse and other problems.”

These would be great benefits, and the ethics oversight committee that reviewed the study’s protocol approved it. But the committee was bitterly divided. Rob Streiffer, a bioethicist at the university, was one of two committee members who voted against the research. He explained why in an interview with

“Will we learn something useful? Well, probably. But [Kalin] was kind of hard-pressed to say much more than that, and I thought that given the cost to the animals and that we’re dealing with non-human primates, the bar should be really, really high. And I wasn’t convinced.”

The article also had Eric Sandgren, director of the university’s Research Animal Resources Center, saying that Kalin’s study “has drawn unusual scrutiny and dissent within the university and intensified the debate over the extent to which benefits to humans justify the suffering of animals.”

That debate extended outside the university, too. Last month, the local government in Dane County, Wisconsin, proposed a resolution to stop the experiments, saying that they are “morally wrong, as they inflict suffering on monkeys with no expectation of medical gains for humans.”

Leaders of The Humane Society have called for the federal government to phase out experiments on nonhuman primates for scientific and ethical reasons. As we learn more about primates – their cognitive abilities and their emotional similarities to humans – the debate sharpens over how, and how much, we should continue to use them for medical experiments. In a special report that I edited for the Hastings Center Report, Andrew Rowan and Kathleen Conlee proposed that the government do for nonhuman primates what is has done for chimpanzees: evaluate the scientific necessity of using them in biomedical experiments and identify existing and potential alternative models. As a result of that process, the National Institutes of Health has eliminated the use of chimpanzees in most research.

But the prospect for phasing out research on nonhuman primates appears slim now that the federal government’s Brain Initiative is under way, raising so much hope for breakthroughs in understanding devastating diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Neuroscience is one of areas of research where primates are considered most valuable and are most often used. Speaking of the use of monkeys in brain research, Stuart Zola, director of Yerkes National Primate Research Center, told Wired that “Their close-to-human brain anatomy and close-to-human genome make them very good models” and that “monkeys are only becoming more medically useful.”   

Ethical questions concerning neuroscience research are being explored by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. At a press conference last spring, a reporter asked if the commission would look at ethical questions in the use of nonhuman primates in brain research. The answer then was uncertain. When I checked back with the commission last week, the answer was no.

I’ll keep following developments with the latest monkey wars in Wisconsin, as well as the exploration of ethical issues in brain research.

Photo via Ed Schipul via Flickr.


Picture of Martha Rosenberg

How can this be legal? This is not "science"--this is treating animals like paper towels. Apparently Henry Harlow lives. The head of NIH proclaims his deep spiritual feelings yet NIH kills more research animals than any US entity and, as  you note, the new brain research initiative will exacerbate this. Volkow, the head of NIDA uses primates to develop alcoholism/ addiction treatments with Big Pharma.

Government primate research is rife with cronyism, conflicts of interest and disturbing disregard for living, breathing beings.

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