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Last Updated: Friday, 28 November 2003, 10:13 GMT
Monkey brain research: The case for
A neuroscientist explains why labs such as the proposed Cambridge primate research centre are still needed to study monkey brains

Anti-vivisection groups claim that animal research is unscientific.

Primate, RDS/Wellcome Trust photo

They say animal species, even monkeys, are physiologically so different from us that animal experimentation will lead to misleading results.

That many vaccines and treatments against human diseases like polio were successfully developed using primate models can readily be gleaned from scientific literature as well as the internet.

But what is the story about the obvious target for anti-vivisectionists: current and future research?

Any source of information appears to be contentious in this debate. But one could turn to the Boyd Group, which comprises both scientists involved in animal research and anti-vivisectionists.

The Boyd Group seeks points of consensus in their debates and publishes these in reports.

'Relieve suffering'

On the ethics of primate experiments, three detailed examples have been given about the kind of research that is carried out on monkeys today.

One described research into Parkinson's disease, induced by chemical lesions, in macaque monkeys.

In these animals, various surgical and brain stimulation treatments were tested to see whether they could alleviate motor symptoms without causing further impairment to patients.

Some of these interventions that worked in the monkeys have successfully been turned into treatments alleviating some of the suffering for Parkinson's patients.

In another example, researchers studied the activity of individual brain cells whilst the trained monkey indicated what it saw in an ambiguous image.

By relating switches in brain activity with changes in the reported percept, scientists could find out which brain cells actually contributed to visual perception.

This work was described in the evidence for the Boyd report as "potentially Nobel prize- winning".

Both these research projects - like another one in the report unravelling the effect of routinely administered stress hormones on the long-term health of pre-term babies - were described as of the highest quality.

Neither statement was contradicted by anti-vivisectionists in the Boyd Group.

'Unrealistic opt out'

The evidence to the Boyd report also stated that there were no animal or non-invasive human alternatives available to carry this research out on.

But even when there is no alternative to research on monkeys available, even when these experiments are of the highest quality - animal rights activists have made clear that they still would not agree to experiments on monkeys.

This point was clearly made by some members of the Boyd Group in the report. They believed that there was no ethical justification for experiments on non-human primates.

Pie chart, BBC
2.73 million experiments in the 12 months of 2002
Total number of procedures rose by 4.2% on 2001
About 80% are for research and drug development
Safety testing accounts for most of the rest
This is not a scientific issue. What it boils down to is the long-standing ethical question about how we weigh human life and suffering relative to animal life and suffering.

There are many disorders, especially of the brain and mind like schizophrenia, for which there is no effective cure as yet.

One in 100 people in the UK will be affected by schizophrenia at some point in their life, more than 300,000 suffer from Alzheimer's; one in 100 over 65 has Parkinson's.

We do have the choice to opt out of certain research approaches, even if this research might potentially deliver an understanding of these disorders or even a cure.

But as one researcher remarked to me: "Whilst the UK might choose to opt out of the research that might deliver an understanding of these disorders, it is unlikely that the public would refuse to use new drugs and treatments should they become available as a result of research carried out overseas."

Indeed, one anti-stroke drug that was recently evaluated on monkeys in Cambridge has just entered large-scale clinical trials worldwide.

Drug safety

Only 471 monkeys were used in 2000 for basic research in the UK; most of these were for brain research.

Almost three quarters of the 2,951 monkeys used in experiments in 2000 were used for toxicological testing. These tests are designed to reduce the risk that people are seriously harmed when they use new compounds.

Toxicological tests are prescribed by law in order to make sure that new drugs - or in some cases household goods like new plastics for baby toys - do not harm people.

Most such tests are carried out in rodents and dogs, but since certain aspects of dogs' physiology are not similar enough to humans, monkeys are used from time to time.

The non-human primates used in these experiments were not great apes like chimpanzees or gorillas that are so like humans. They were monkeys like the New World marmosets or Old World rhesus macaques.

Great apes have not been used in UK research since 1986 and their use was completely banned in 1997.

Chart, BBC


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