Saturday, October 13, 2012

New Maternal Deprivation Research at U of Wisconsin

Last month I gave a talk at the University of Wisconsin at the invitation of the Forum on Animal Research Ethics. This forum has hosted a variety of speakers who discussed different aspects of animal research. I spoke about animal research and the limits of medicine.
I focused on the ways that ethical questions are inseparable from scientific questions.  Values are implicated in what we do, particularly when suffering is involved (and I talked about both human and non-human suffering). Importantly, just because something is scientifically justified doesn’t mean it is ethically justified.  If an NIH panel decides to fund an experiment that doesn’t necessarily mean it is an ethically justified experiment.  In general, NIH panels tend to defer to the judgments of IACUCs (Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees) on ethical questions.
But if an IACUC approves an experimental protocol does that mean it is ethically justified?
Some at UW think so.  However, there is one experimental protocol that I learned on my visit was recently approved by not one, but two ACUCs, that I think is not ethically defensible.  The protocol is now part of the public record and I have had the chance to carefully review it. (go here and here are the minutes of one ACUC meeting.)
The research in question is a new type of maternal deprivation research designed to study anxiety by creating adverse early rearing conditions and then exposing the maternally deprived young monkeys to a snake and other frightening stimuli.  The monkeys will be killed after the experiment is over and their brains will be studied. I believe this experiment is unethical and I also think it violates the spirit, if not the promulgated regulations, of the Animal Welfare Act which explicitly requires that the psychological well-being of primates be promoted (not intentionally destroyed).
There is no doubt that people who suffer from anxiety disorders suffer considerably and finding a way to alleviate this suffering is a noble end.  However, it isn’t at all clear that the proposed monkey model will help alleviate human suffering, in part because it isn’t clear that the monkey model is adequate.
Consider the results of a recent study that found distinct differences in myelin development in humans compared to our closest genetic and evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee.  Myelin allows the developing brain to build connections that are necessary for cognitive function, including the regulation of emotions.  Myelin development happens early in chimpanzee brain development and later in humans, and it is at this time, according to researchers, that humans are vulnerable to neuropsychiatric disease.   If the brains of our closest primate relatives are so different than our own, macaque monkey brains will be more profoundly different.

In addition, this approved maternal deprivation experiment, by the researcher’s own admission, does not replicate the adverse conditions that children face.  As Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna, M.D. a pediatric psychiatrist told me, she “sees many patients in our offices who have grown up under “adverse” conditions, and they are hardly a uniform set. There are a wide variety of stressors that traumatized human children have to deal with, including various types of abuse and neglect, and these can never be replicated with any kind of accuracy using animal models.”

Even if there were a promising benefit to be found, there is a second question that needs to be answered in order to determine whether these experiments are ethically  justified -- is there no other way to achieve the benefit?   In the case of this maternal deprivation experiment, there are many obvious ways to minimize the human suffering that results from anxiety disorders.  If children are suffering from early adverse rearing conditions, social programs that work to prevent this adversity for example, programs that teach young mothers parenting skills; programs that help fight drug addiction; programs that provide affordable access to prenatal and early childhood healthcare; affordable childcare programs that can also monitor adverse exposures; as well as adult services for parents to address alcoholism, anger management, and provide job training, could all directly help.  Having such services more readily available can prevent the psychological harms that arise from childhood trauma and would have other social benefits as well.  In tough economic times, the provision of such services generally fall on charities that are already overburdened. 
When federal tax-payer dollars go to fund animal experimentation, these funds cannot be used in other ways.  Imagine how much real good the funds that UW researchers have  used causing monkeys anxiety for 30 years could have done directly serving those children who suffer so greatly and have very limited access to care and assistance.  Researchers claim there is a moral imperative to conduct primate research to help prevent human suffering.  I agree there is a moral imperative here to help children who are suffering.  But research that involves creating monkeys and intentionally damaging their psychological well-being will not help these children and it will use valuable resources that actually could go a long way towards helping people who suffer from anxiety live better lives.

UPDATE:  More on the issue here.
Sign a petition to the provost. 
There is a facebook group for UW alum. 
Another blog post here.