Plight of baby monkeys goes to Capitol Hill
by Carol Thompson
Should baby monkeys be used in maternal-deprivation experiments?
That was the question before Congress Tuesday as those concerned spoke to whether the experiments carried out at the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology, part of the National Institutes of Health, are ethical.
The experiments are led by Stephen Suomi, a psychologist at the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) in Poolesville, Maryland. Suomi’s lab studies how removing newborn rhesus macaques from their mothers affects biological processes such as brain activity and gene expression, and behaviors such as alcohol consumption in the infants.
Suomi has performed similar experiments for about three decades and has received approximately $30 million over the past seven years for the work, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, more commonly known by the acronym PETA.
The babies are torn away from their mothers at birth and subjected to the experiments.
PETA obtained documents and videos from the NIH through a freedom-of-information request. One video shows several incidences of baby monkeys’ being extremely distressed by various induced methods. A baby monkey is placed in a cage that does not have enough room for movement. Another scene shows babies caged and scared by masked humans or noises and bursts of air that sends them into a panic.
The video also shows the babies caged with their mothers who are drugged and their nipples taped over so they can’t care for the infant. One researcher can be heard laughing as one mother tries to stay awake to care for her infant. In some experiments, mechanical snakes were released into the cages to further terrify the infants.
Some of the infants are forcibly addicted to alcohol, according to PETA, in order to worsen their symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The experiments have never led to the development of treatments for human mental illness and are superseded by human brain-imaging and other modern techniques, PETA argues.
NIH stands by its experimental procedures, according to a statement issued Monday. “Recently, concerns have been raised regarding the ethical treatment of non-human primates in a laboratory in the Intramural Research Program (IRP) at the NIH. The specific research in question is focused on examining the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates. Primary objectives are to understand how genetic and environmental factors interact to affect cognitive development, as well as develop interventions that can alter developmental trajectories of individuals whose specific genetic and experiential background put them at risk for adverse developmental outcomes. These studies cannot be carried out in humans and require the use of animal studies to carefully separate experience, genetic, and environmental factors. Ultimately, these findings assist researchers in identifying humans most likely to suffer negative effects in at-risk situations and develop behavioral and drug therapies to improve negative outcomes early in life.”
The American Psychological Association also stands behind the research. “Dr. Suomi’s work has been critical in understanding how the interactions between genes and the physical and social environments affect individual development, which in turn has enhanced our understanding of and treatments for mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and autism,” wrote Howard S. Kurtzman, Ph.D. Acting Executive Director for Science of the APA. “Dr. Suomi and colleagues found that like humans, monkeys share similar variants of genes that make an individual more vulnerable to mood and personality disorders; however, genetics interact with experience in determining such disorders, and mother-infant dynamics in particular have a large influence on later development.”
In December, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), led a congressional request for a bioethics review of the NIH lab. She co-hosted the briefing along with PETA, actor-activist James Cromwell and scientists John Gluck and Katherine Roe.
Image: Jhon Ahmad