The Necessity of the Evil: Breeding Monkeys to Experiment with their Brains

In 2014 a German animal-rights group called soko Tierschutz planted a caretaker in the laboratory of Nikos Logothetis, a neuroscientist working at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen. The infiltrator secretly filmed around 100 hours of lab work over six months, some of which was later broadcast on German television. The footage showed monkeys with metal plugs grafted into their skulls—ports which researchers used to probe and study their brains. One vomits on camera, apparently as a result of damage done to blood vessels in its brain while electrodes were inserted.

The impact was immediate and lasting. Around 800 people massed outside Dr Logothetis’s lab, demanding an end to his work with monkeys. He was called a monster and a murderer. He and his family received death threats. He faced charges (which were dismissed) of breaking German animal-welfare laws. So in 2020 he announced that his laboratory would move to China. He is building a new research facility in Shanghai, working with Mu-ming Poo of the Institute of Neuroscience, one of China’s leading brain researchers, who was on the team responsible for first cloning a genetically modified primate in 2018. 

In East Asia, particularly China and Japan, the volume of research carried out on monkeys is growing. Most of this has been driven by creating and expanding domestic primate-research programmes. Leading institutions such as the Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience focus on breeding monkeys whose genomes have been modified in order to make their physiology more like humans’ and so more useful for studying human diseases.

The social nature of monkeys and their intelligence—which is why they are so useful for research—also help explain why such experiments are so troubling. Research which relies on them is simultaneously more valuable and more ethically fraught than research on other creatures. Neuroscientists in particular consider monkeys irreplaceable. The brain is so poorly understood that looking at its activity in living creatures is the only way to fathom how it works, says Dr Treue. Dissecting dead brains produces only limited information. Brains only really make sense when active. Few humans would volunteer to have electrodes implanted in their brains. The consent of any who did would be suspect….

The list of medical advances which rest on animal experimentation is long, but Dr Bennett points to one in particular that could not have happened without monkeys: prosthetic limbs which “talk” to the brain, known as neural prosthetics. The brains of non-human primates are sufficiently similar to ours to allow for a prosthetic developed on monkeys to be used by humans. They are still rare, but prototypes have restored the power to interact with the physical world to people who have lost the use of their own limbs.

China is becoming the global centre for the kind of neuroscience that uses monkeys. And the stakes are getting higher. Neurological disorders are the world’s second-leading cause of death after heart disease. Conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and dementia are becoming more burdensome as the world gets greyer. Meanwhile technology companies hope that an understanding of the brain can help them build cleverer software. Generals think advances in neuroscience can help them build better weapons.

The pandemic has bolstered China’s position. In February 2020 China’s government banned the export of all wild animals in an effort to tamp down the wildlife trade that is thought to be a vector for the zoonotic spillover of pathogens such as sars-cov-2, the virus that causes covid-19. Exceptions for research are subject to the government’s approval. Until recently the majority of monkeys used in America were imported from farms in China. But export controls have created shortages. China has decided that research primates are a strategic resource. Exports are unlikely to revert to their previous levels…America and Europe may find themselves outsourcing the creation of knowledge that relies on research methods they consider unethical. In future they may have to choose between relying on the fruits of that knowledge, such as treatments for neurological disorders, and rejecting them in principle….

Excerpt from Money Business: Attitudes towards experimenting on monkeys are diverging, Economist, July 24, 2021

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