Neuroscientific monkey research is ethically troubling, but vital
TIT HUMAN brain is perhaps the most complex object on Earth. It contains 85 billion nerve cells and billions of billions of interconnections. When these cells process information, people experience consciousness and thought. The brain is made even more mysterious by the fact that it can only be examined when it is alive. To truly understand brains, you have to examine them as they work inside the body.
Few sane humans would volunteer to plug today’s instruments and sensors into their living brains. This often involves someone piercing your skull, with a risk of infection or brain damage. Thus, neuroscientists seeking to understand the human brain are turning to the animals closest to humanity, the primates.
It’s controversial. The usefulness of apes as a model for human neurology also increases the stakes in conducting experiments on them: the better their brains serve as analogues to humans, the more it follows that they probably suffer in the same way. also. Animal rights activists rightly point out that monkeys cannot consent to such treatment. It is unlikely that they would nod if they could.
The controversy has had an uneven impact around the world. In Europe and America, under pressure from animal rights groups, the amount of neuroscience research conducted on monkeys is stable or declining. Both places have or are considering laws requiring their use to end. But as we explain this week, neuroscience research in monkeys is booming in China and Japan.
America and Europe should close this gap. Allowing China to move forward in brain science without setting up a comparable research program would be strategically foolish. A Chinese neuroscience lab in Shanghai has already attracted one of Germany’s top researchers and his lab. As he and his colleagues find new ways to access and manipulate the brain, China will be the first to reap the rewards of the effort. To avoid relying on China for this knowledge, America and Europe must act now.
Better knowledge of the brain is not always a force for good. Given the official Chinese state military-civil fusion policy, there is probably little that can be done to prevent the Communist Party of China from gaining the ability to build neuro-weapons based on its nuclear weapons programs. brain research, if they pay off. But liberal societies should at least keep track of what is possible, and how it works, through research programs under their own control.
And if labs in China and Japan were to offer treatments for neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease as a result of their studies on the brain of monkeys, it would be nearly impossible for Western countries to refuse to buy them to cure their citizens. Letting others do the dirty work of generating knowledge using ways you consider unethical, while encouraging them by adding to demand, is not taking a high moral stance. This is hypocrisy. Better for Western countries to do the necessary but disturbing research themselves, working to the standards they deem necessary.
Taking responsibility for the suffering they cause begins with maintaining high quality primate research in America and Europe. Tracking China’s expansion also makes sense. Neuroscientists should be more courageous in publicly defending their work. Governments must protect their ability to conduct legal research.
Some experiments on monkeys can be avoided by using computer simulations or by growing brain cells in Petri dishes. But so little is known about the brain today that probing the living will remain essential for some time. A radical alternative to the use of apes in neuroscience would be to rely instead on consenting humans. After all, people are already joining biomedical studies, and they easily use non-invasive brain analysis equipment.
Getting sensors inside the skull, alongside human neurons, is always difficult. However, the tools used to probe brains are getting smaller and less invasive. Someday, they may look more like injectable, wired silicon dust than an implantable electronic device. Such instruments would make the prospect of obtaining informed consent from human subjects less intimidating. But to get there, humans will have to rely on apes for a while. People do not yet understand their brains well enough to study themselves safely. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the title “Brainstorming”