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Non-human primates in research: humane treatment or human rights?

We speak to Dr Helen Cassaday (University of Nottingham, and the British Psychological Society's Research Board portfolio holder for animal welfare).

03 July 2015

Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, has said he will give up his research on primates ‘as quickly as possible’, citing a lack of support from colleagues and the scientific community as key factors in this decision. In particular, he calls on organisations worldwide to file criminal charges against radical activists. You’re the lead on animal welfare for the British Psychological Society’s Research Board – do you feel psychologists who work with animals receive enough protection?
I think it’s most important to emphasise how highly protected primates are by UK and European legislation. Under UK Home Office legislation, special protection begins with the octopus and non-human primates are most highly protected. Research on chimpanzees and gorillas would be illegal and the use of new world monkeys such as marmosets is highly restricted – the number of non-human primates used in research is kept as low as possible, and rats and mice are often used as alternatives. So the legislation is ‘speciesist’ based on current understanding of neurological complexity and sentience, but no rat or mouse is used either if the scientific objective could be addressed by the study of humans or the use of a computer simulation.
The remit of my BPS role doesn’t extend beyond the welfare of non-human primates but as a Home Office license holder I’m not feeling particularly protected at present. I have spoken to researchers who say that animal models are of great importance in their field (see below) but that those working on these research questions using monkeys are working outside of Europe (i.e. Asia) because they feel they could not pursue their research in Europe.

Do you think the public have a good understanding of the issues around the use of animals in research?
The Openness Concordat, published early in 2014, has the objective to promote public understanding of animal work based on the increased availability of information and potential public access to animal labs. In particular many animal protection organisations would like greater availability of images including CCTV. However, Logothetis’ work was the subject of a broadcast on German national television in September that showed footage filmed by an undercover activist working at the institute. Logothetis has said the footage is inaccurate, presenting a rare emergency situation following surgery as typical and showing stress behaviours deliberately prompted by the undercover caregiver. So it’s possible that video footage can be misinterpreted. Data on the numbers of animals entering regulated procedures can also be interpreted in different ways and the purpose of the research may not be accurately described in press releases issued by animal protection organisations. FOI requests for example have been causing some problems – especially in US, not just for animal researchers.

Do you think primate research still has a place in UK psychology?
The UK Home Office position on this is that primates should only be used for invasive laboratory-based studies when there is no alternative, the potential benefit of the research is clear and the highest standards of animal welfare are applied. Personally, as a beneficiary of medical research, I’d endorse this view. However, I think the use of alternative species raises similar concerns in that, for example, the use of pigs in neuroscientific research is on the increase as an alternative to the use of non-human primates, not so much in the UK at present but in parts of Europe. Pigs too are widely viewed as intelligent emotional animals.
Not all ‘psychology’ research can or should be considered medical or potentially medical and some is non-invasive and conducted for the purpose of better understanding the animals. To the animals’ advantage, the more we know about the cognitive and emotional capacities of non-human primates, the stronger the justification for increased protection, also in the natural environment where poaching is a serious threat to survival. We can meanwhile be confident that laboratory work judged to require the use of non-human primates will be done to the highest possible standards in the UK and the rest of Europe, such work is not so highly regulated in some other countries.
One researcher recently mentioned to me that experimental studies of language learning (in the US) have been controversial in that they are non-invasive but in the longer term the ‘retired’ subjects (e.g. Nim) have not had the same level of human attention and affection. However, such studies have been immensely important to our understanding of primate sentience. Similar arguments may apply to studies of primate theory of mind. There has been considerable debate recently over whether animals are entitled to 'human rights' or just 'humane treatment', around a US court case looking at whether two chimpanzees kept in a university laboratory are being illegally detained.

- Further reading: Wellcome Trust review of research using non-human primates; Primates in Medical Research.

Dr Cassaday also asked a research neuroscientist for comment:

"My view is that animal researchers in general are getting a hard time again at the moment because (i) the previous Animal Liberation Front offenders are gradually emerging from jail, (ii) the anti-vivisection communities in general are becoming more sophisticated in their actions, with respect for example to the Freedom of Information Act and (iii) the Home Office is becoming ever more restrictive and meddling – being prone to imposing arbitrary welfare actions often on the back of little of no evidence. This is despite the latter's claims to greater efficiency and the politicians' main answers – which are (i) helpfully making it more difficult (but not impossible) for animal rights protesters to harass individuals and (ii) to mandate us to get out and defend our work to what is sometimes an unscientific and occasionally hostile public and unhelpful, "balanced view" media.
If one works with non-human primates, all of these issues are greatly magnified in impact and difficulty; hence Logothetis giving up ground-breaking work on methods of analysing the mechanisms of visual processing in the primate brain – including work that illuminates how some of the major tools of human cognitive researchers actually operate, notably the mechanistic basis of the BOLD effect in functional magnetic resonance imaging (in everyday parlance, how brain scanning works in the human (primate) brain).
In terms of what non-human primate work provides specifically to Psychology, I would argue that it (i) provides essential insight into how cognition and social behaviour has evolved – and thus into the nature of being human and (ii) gives essential support to scientific investigations of how certain brain structures work and their contribution to cognitive processes in health and disease. The monkey brain is so much more related to the human brain than for other species. Clinical disorders involving higher cognitive functions such as schizophrenia, autism, ADHD and depression implicate malfunctioning, for example, of the prefrontal cortex (i.e. frontal lobes).
Alzheimer's disease and many other forms of dementia implicate regions of the cerebral cortex also including the temporal and parietal lobes. If we do not understand how these brain regions work we will never have a good understanding of how to treat these disorders. We will never be able to study these systems as effectively in animals such as rodents, with their impressive behavioural repertoire, but limited cognition capabilities and their correspondingly impoverished development of the cerebral cortex. Only primates have a cortico-spinal system for controlling fine hand movements.
Non-human primates are the only way to investigate these processes with sufficient resolution and accuracy with the techniques we have available, such as single cell electrophysiological recording, sophisticated brain imaging methodologies and pharmacological or neurochemical interventions. (Rodent work is also of course crucial for other complementary types of study, depending, for example, on genetic factors, basic molecular, cellular and fundamental behavioural mechanisms, and for piloting methods and ideas for application to primates, including humans).