Readers of the Queen’s Gazette may have noticed an article last week featuring neuroscience research at Queen’s focused on identifying the mechanism in the brain “responsible for interpreting how visual input from a scene determines where we look. This mechanism, known as a visual salience map, allows the brain to quickly identify and act on the most important information in the visual field, and is a basic mechanism for our everyday vision.”
But these same readers might be astonished to learn that this research, which “opens up opportunities” in fields such as visual robotics, advertising, and diagnosis of neurological disorders, is conducted using monkeys who are housed in barren cages in the windowless basement of Botterell Hall, where they live out their profoundly impoverished and miserable lives. During the research, the monkeys are immobilized in restraints for hours at a time, and ‘motivated’ to work by being denied liquids prior to work time. Before the research, they undergo surgery to implant electrodes in their brains, and screws in their skulls to hold a metal halo apparatus that supports the camera that tracks their eye movements.[i] They are given antibiotics because of persistent infections caused by these implants, often leading to chunks of skull necrosis and collapse, which can lead to death. All of this surgery and restraint is required because the monkeys don’t want to do this work. They have to be forced to sit still, to hold their heads still, and to look at the stimulus.
These, and related eye-tracking experiments, have been singled out as particularly “grotesque” by neuroscientist Lawrence Hansen (University of California at San Diego). In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education he says:
“One especially disturbing example of primate vivisection repeatedly approved by many university animal-care-and-use committees is a decades-long series of highly invasive experiments performed on rhesus monkeys to learn more about the neuronal circuitry of visual tracking in the brain. The luckless monkeys undergo multiple surgeries to have coils implanted in both eyes; holes drilled in their skulls to allow researchers to selectively destroy some parts of their brains and put recording electrodes in others; and head-immobilization surgeries in which screws, bolts, and plates are directly attached to their skulls. The monkeys are anesthetized during these surgeries. After a recovery period, they are intentionally dehydrated to produce a water-deprivation “work ethic” so that they will visually track moving objects for the reward of a sip of water.”
He notes that researchers concoct spurious justificatory fantasies about their research and its potential to find causes or cures for human neurological disease (“opens up opportunities” for “diagnosis of neurological disorders”), while in fact:
“These experiments in the basic neuroscience of visual tracking are so thoroughly unrelated to the neuropathology of Alzheimer’s disease that in more than 28 years of research in the neuroscience of the disease, I have never come across a single reference to them in any scientific literature on neurodegenerative disease.”
The Queen’s Gazette article describes the eye-tracking research in seven long paragraphs while never once mentioning the monkeys, let alone the conditions of their lives. This is perhaps not surprising, since surveys show that the public is overwhelmingly opposed to this sort of research which involves severe harm and deprivation and which is not aimed at treating human illness (and which in any event simply confirms what has already been modelled using “computational models of visual saliency”). Queen’s knows this, and that’s why the monkeys are left out of the article.
In short, the article ‘celebrates’ Queen’s research, while at the same time reflecting a deep (and justified) shame about how this research is conducted.
[i] Here is a technical description of the implant surgery performed on the monkeys for this research:
To allow access of microelectrodes to the SC [superior colliculus], a craniotomy was made based on stereotaxic coordinates of the SC, centered on the midline and angled 38° posterior of vertical. The stereotaxic apparatus (KOPF Instruments) stabilized the animal’s head during implantation of stainless steel screws, which served to anchor the explant (recording chambers and head post stabilized with acrylic cement) to the skull. A stainless steel recording chamber (Crist Instruments) allowed for mounting of a microdrive, and a stainless steel head holder was embedded in the acrylic explant. The chamber was tilted 38° posterior to vertical to allow for access to the SC. Sterilized scleral search coils (19–20 mm diam) were inserted subconjunctivally into each eye (Judge et al. 1980) and were used to measure eye position with the search coil technique (Robinson 1963). The search coil leads had a Powell connector attached at termination that was embedded in the acrylic explant. The analgesic buprenorphine (0.01–0.02 mg/kg im) was administered throughout the surgery and during recovery (8–12 h). The antiinflammatory agent ketoprofen (2.0 mg/kg 1st dose, 1.0 mg/kg additional doses) was administered at the end of the surgery (prior to arousal), the day after the surgery, and every day thereafter (as required). Monkeys were given ≥2 wk to recover prior to onset of behavioral training.