Nonhuman primate research gives us otherwise impossible treatments

stuart-bakerLast week, Dr. Stuart Baker, a Professor of Movement Neuroscience at Newcastle University, wrote an article in The Conversation detailing not only the lifesaving research that nonhuman primates contribute to, but also the exceptional care they receive while contributing to human health. Stuart last week also published a paper describing his laboratory’s development of a new device that helps stroke patients to recover, a device that was dependent on development first in rhesus monkeys.  In his piece in The Conversation, Baker highlights the following:

  • Why it is important to understand how the brain controls movement
  • Why nonhuman primates are superior to other animal models for this type of research
  • The state-of-the-art care his laboratory primates receive

Why it is important to understand how the brain controls movement

“We typically take the ability to move in a fluid, coordinated way for granted,” Baker writes. Yet many adults “suffer damage to the brain’s pathways for movement, for example after a stroke. Suddenly, everyday tasks become a tiring, frustrating struggle.” Baker studies how the brain controls movement in order to understand the connections between our brains and our limbs. By understanding how brain cells adapt their neuronal activity during movements, how neurons are connected, and how they reconfigure after injury, Baker can then develop devices for therapeutic treatment like the one he published about in The Journal of Neuroscience last week.

Why nonhuman primates are superior to other animal models for this type of research

In his article in The Conversation, Baker emphasized the need for nonhuman primates in movement neuroscience research. In order to understand the deepest inner workings of the brain – those that don’t contribute to scalp recordings, which can be used in humans – one must probe deeper than the surface. Baker uses an analogy of an airport: “When we record from the scalp, we average the signals from many millions of cells. It’s a bit like placing a microphone on the ceiling of an airport departure hall, and measuring the sound levels.” This type of information is useful because it can tell you “what times of the day the airport is busy.” But “some aspects of the airport’s operations – those outside on the tarmac – would be missed.” Similarly, Baker says, some brain centers that control movement are so deep beneath the skull that a deeper exploration beyond scalp recordings is required. Enter monkey models: “Many pathways for movement control are different between primates such as humans and other animals such as rats. Only a primate model can give us information which is relevant to human diseases.

One of Newcastle’s macaque monkeys. Newcastle University, Photo credit: S. Baker

One of Newcastle’s macaque monkeys. Newcastle University, Photo credit: S. Baker

The state-of-the-art care his laboratory primates receive

Stuart is well aware that there are inaccurate and baseless claims that his lab animals suffer. In The Conversation, he describes in detail the care his monkey receive, from positive reinforcement training so that they learn to perform complex tasks with their hands or arm to undergoing surgery “in a fully equipped operating theatre, with sophisticated anaesthetics and painkilling medication borrowed from state-of-the-art human care.” The monkeys are carefully monitored to ensure they are not distressed or in pain.

Baker also emphasizes the “huge effort [that] goes into minimizing suffering every day.” This effort is not optional, but “an integral part of what we do and who we are.”

Baker’s article is a wonderful example of the type of transparency that scientists should engage in more frequently. Without such candor, the public is unaware of the extent to which animal models contribute to lifesaving therapeutics – and also of the excellent care they receive from the people who truly love working with them.

What can you share about your research and the animals you work with?

2 responses to “Nonhuman primate research gives us otherwise impossible treatments

  1. I feel saddened that as humans we consider ourselves to be superior and somehow our existential experience on this earth is more important than non-human animals. My own mother died of cancer and miss her as I do, I would never had advocated that testing is acceptable, even if it had given her a few more years to live. We are not superior to animals and as long as we hold these speciesist views, we will continue to sanction through our choices killing 150 billion animals per year (as we do).

  2. Most of the recent “complaints” filed by various groups emerge from OLAW self-reports. It is egregious that the self-reporting system, intended to ensure compliance and corrective action, has been manipulated and distorted in this way.

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