(MONKEYS/ANIMAL TESTING) In the past, controversial NIH-funded “maternal deprivation” experiments, in which infant monkeys are removed from their mothers at birth so investigators can study the psychological consequences, have sparked public debate and a congressional inquiry.
Monkey researchers believe their work is justified because of the potential benefits to human patients suffering from anxiety disorders. Critics argue that these studies cause a great amount of animal suffering, but produce no useful results.
Although percentages are on the decline, many still believe that it’s acceptable to use animals for medical research which benefits humans. Even people who advocate for the compassionate treatment of animals often think that we have the right to use them for our own purposes, such as finding new treatments for debilitating illnesses.
But an important question remains: How do we as a society determine whether or not a particular type of research is necessary for the advancement of modern medicine? As scientists who make a living experimenting on animals are always likely to argue that their work is justified, it’s up to the rest of us to examine their rationale and make sure that it is valid.
In the case of maternal deprivation experiments, the absence of a mother causes baby monkeys to display an increase in fearful behaviors when exposed to stressful situations. Researchers describe this quality as “inhibited temperament,” commonly known as “shyness,” a condition associated with an increased risk of anxiety disorders when present in human children.
Through a series of examinations, including killing the monkeys and examining their brains, scientists hope to learn more about pathways in the primate brain related to the development of inhibited temperament, and eventually develop new medications for use in human anxiety disorders.
However, there is an essential flaw in this line of reasoning. Inhibited temperament is a personality trait, not a mental illness. Although behaviorally inhibited children are more likely to develop anxiety disorders later in life, most shy kids will grow up to be perfectly normal adults.
Moreover, shyness does have certain advantages; inhibited children are less likely than others to develop disruptive behavior disorders. For these reasons, treating children with a designer drug developed to “target” behavioral inhibition in monkeys would be ill-advised and have unpredictable results.
It’s no wonder that anxiety experiments in baby monkeys have gone on for decades now, but produced no new treatments that pediatric psychiatrists like myself can use to help our patients. While animal advocates must sometimes weigh animal welfare issues against human needs, in this case there is no such conflict.
Relying on medical researchers to police themselves on the ethics and value of maternal deprivation experiments has not proven to be effective. Let’s keep the pressure on our elected representatives to permanently end these studies, funded with U.S. taxpayer money and currently taking place at the National Institutes of Health and the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
— Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D. is a pediatric psychiatrist and author of the e-book Raising Kids Who Love Animals