A look at responsible research with monkeys

At the last Pro-Test for Science rally (then UCLA Pro-Test) I was trying to explain opponents of research that the images of bleeding monkeys shown in their signs were either from decades ago or from other countries, not the US or the European Union, and certainly not representative of research at the University of California. To counteract the effect of such misleading images, one of my colleagues in Germany has made a large amount of information available to the public, not only publishing their animal protocols and methods (which can also be obtained by reading the scientific publications), but also illustrating the experiments with both actual pictures and videos taking from his laboratory.

The surgical suite of Prof. Logothetis showing anesthesia and monitoring equipment comparable to those found in the best human surgical suites in hospitals.

You can see the animals in their living quarters, and watch training sessions and how the animals are transferred from their cages to the Laboratory.  You can watch a monkey perform a task while the activity of neurons in their brains is being recorded and a video camera follows the movement of the eyes.   There is a detailed and illustrative explanation of how recording chambers are implanted, and how a description of the entire surgical suite and protocols.  There is also a nice explanation of why alternative methods are not available that would allow investigators to study brain electrophysiology in the intact animal.

This impressive effort by Professor Nikos Logothetis to set the record straight on what is going on inside the laboratories is to be commended and replicated.  We hope UCLA and other US institutions can follow up on his example, once researchers and institutional officials become more confident that our openness won’t lead to more threats from animal right extremists.  After all, the only way to counteract a campaign of mis-information by opponents of research is to show the public the truth — that research with animals at academic institutions like the Max Plank Institute or the University of California is carried out with responsibility using the most advanced methods available.


Dario Ringach


One response to “A look at responsible research with monkeys

  1. Professor Logothetis certainly knows what he’s taking about when it comes to the capabilities and limitations of fMRI, which isn’t surprising given his recognized expertise in the field.

    Last year he wrote a review for Nature entitled “What we can do and what we cannot do with fMRI” which should be required reading for anyone interested in the technology.


    Having discussed the current state of fMRI technology in detail, including the contribution of electrophysiological and fMRI experiments in animals to our ability to interperet fMRI data, Prof. Logothetis concludes that:

    “This having been said, and despite its shortcomings, fMRI is currently the best tool we have for gaining insights into brain function and formulating interesting and eventually testable hypotheses, even though the plausibility of these hypotheses critically depends on used magnetic resonance technology, experimental protocol, statistical analysis and insightful modelling. Theories on the brain’s functional organization (not just modelling of data) will probably be the best strategy for optimizing all of the above. Hypotheses formulated on the basis of fMRI experiments are unlikely to be analytically tested with fMRI itself in terms of neural mechanisms, and this is unlikely to change any time in the near future.

    Of course, fMRI is not the only methodology that has clear and serious limitations. Electrical measurements of brain activity, including invasive techniques with single or multiple electrodes, also fall short of affording real answers about network activity. Single-unit recordings and firing rates are better suited to the study of cellular properties than of neuronal assemblies, and field potentials share much of the ambiguity discussed in the context of the fMRI signal. None of the above techniques is a substitute for the others. Today, a multimodal approach is more necessary than ever for the study of the brain’s function and dysfunction. Such an approach must include further improvements to MRI technology and its combination with other non-invasive techniques that directly assess the brain’s electrical activity, but it also requires a profound understanding of the neural basis of haemodynamic responses and a tight coupling of human and animal experimentation that will allow us to fathom the homologies between humans and other primates that are amenable to invasive electrophysiological and pharmacological testing. Claims that computational methods and non-invasive neuroimaging (that is, excluding animal experimentation) should be sufficient to understand brain function and disorders are, in my opinion, naive and utterly incorrect. If we really wish to understand how our brain functions, we cannot afford to discard any relevant methodology, much less one providing direct information from the actual neural elements that underlie all our cognitive capacities.”

    And that’s the key thing to remember, it is not a case of either non-invasive studies in humans or electrophysiological studies in animals, both (and more) are necessary if we are to understand how the brain works, what happens when it is damaged or diseased, and what we can do to help.

    p.s For those wishing to know more Dario wrote an excelent introduction to this topic a few months ago http://speakingofresearch.com/2009/07/31/the-limits-of-fmri/