The Society for Neuroscience just held its annual conference in Chicago. I attended--not as a member, though neuroscience is my field, but to protest the organization's stated goal of broadening support for animal research. The society, like animal experimenters everywhere, perceives "growing threats" to animal research and seeks to recruit additional allies with a "vested interest" in promoting animal experimentation.
Every vested interest is entitled to its own propaganda, but such an effort warrants a response from neuroscience researchers who instead advocate kindness to animals.
Neuroscientists with established research credentials and a PETA membership are rare. They are often viewed by faculty colleagues as untrustworthy or even treasonous agents provocateurs as they are inclined to raise both scientific and ethical objections to the most egregious abuses of animals within our own universities. Yet medical school faculty members who are also animal activists are uniquely well-qualified to expose basic scientists' disingenuous, misleading or overreaching claims that their animal research is scientifically and ethically justified because the results may someday, somehow, possibly benefit humans.
Contrived connections between cruelty-intensive basic neuroscience research and future human welfare is a tacit admission by neuroscientists that the general public, which ultimately funds most research, would recoil in horror from their more grotesque monkey, dog or cat experiments and overwhelmingly condemn them if they knew that they were not going to help humans.
One particularly egregious example is a decades-long series of highly invasive monkey experiments performed at universities across the country to study neural control of visual tracking. Luckless monkeys have coils implanted in both eyes, multiple craniotomies for electrode placements in their brains and head immobilization surgeries in which screws, bolts and plates are directly attached to their skulls. This is followed by water deprivation to produce a "work ethic" so that they will visually track moving objects.
First impressions are usually correct in questions of cruelty to animals, and most of us cannot even bear to look at pictures of these monkeys with their electrode-implanted brains and bolted heads being put through their paces in a desperate attempt to get a life-sustaining sip of water.
Such cruelty is justified in the corresponding grant application by invoking the possibility that the resulting data may allow us to find the cause and cure for diseases such as Alzheimer's. But we who have spent decades in Alzheimer's disease research recognize that such a blank-check justification is an ethical bait-and-switch since this neural pathway is not even involved in Alzheimer's disease and these experiments have never been referenced in real Alzheimer's disease research.
Because such monkey torture will not lead to improved human health, you don't need to be an animal rights advocate to wonder if an ethical cost-benefit analysis might conclude that the ends just don't justify the means, especially since rapid advances in sophisticated high-resolution neuroimaging on humans will very soon obviate the need for such invasive techniques.