Scientists to NIH leadership: Defend mental health research that is under attack

March 5th 2020

Once again, videos of monkeys in scientific research are generating headlines, reflecting the views of groups opposed to the use of animals in research. This time, videos from research aimed at identifying brain circuits involved in mental health studies conducted at the US National Institutes of Health are being misrepresented. Unfortunately, but also predictably, these videos are taken out of context and without factual descriptive information on what the videos show and why the research is being conducted. Such misleading information and selective reporting is disingenuous and biased, and it’s resulting in calls to action from scientists who are fed up with this kind of repeated coverage:

The NBC video clips were edited and put together by a known anti-animal research advocacy group, The White Coat Waste Project (WCW).This is not the first time WCW has circulated misleading videos to discredit research with substantial importance for science and medicine (see prior posts: Is Animal Research Worth the Expense?). Yet again, the WCW exploits openness/transparency mechanisms inherent to the legislative/regulatory system in the US to obtain research video from the NIH labs and uses them to mislead the public and legislators.

The video clips posted by the WCW lack several important pieces of information. First, the videos show the monkeys in a testing cage, not in their normal housing. Monkeys are brought into the testing cage for only short periods of time; they do not live in these testing cages full-time. Typically, monkeys’ laboratory living environments including larger caging than depicted here, access to social partners (i.e., other monkeys), and a variety of enrichment toys and foraging items. The tests depicted in these clips are validated measures of approach/avoidance used to assess emotional responses to positive and negative stimuli in nonhuman primates. These approach/avoidance tests usually involve short and infrequent exposure to the stimuli, just like monkeys would experience in the real world. The behavioral responses of the animals are used to assess how they process stimuli of different emotional valences. These tests are invaluable for identifying brain circuits involved in fear and emotional regulation, and in designing treatments for a range of neuropsychiatric disorders. For example, such animal research can help to identify the brain network involved and provides vital information on how it supports normal emotions, how abnormal emotional responses may arise and what potential treatments may be available to help individuals with emotional disorders.

The videos shown by NBC were edited and clipped together, without context, resulting in a propaganda piece that shows less than 90 seconds out of over 50 hours of video. The WCW has been happy in the past to manipulate videos (see here) and here they go again! Predictably, this new doctored video led to a series of campaigns, headlines, and tweets peppered with emotionally charged words like “torment,” “fraud,” and “abuse.” These tactics follows a similar playbook we’ve seen before (see here, here and here).

Very unfortunately, a handful of Congress members with a long history of supporting anti-animal research efforts again took the bait. In giving the benefit of the doubt, SR is hopeful that their support of WCW may come from ignorance of facts (see here).

How did the NIH respond?

The videotapes were released after WCW sued the NIH for access to them in December 2019. Upon release of the videos. PETA and WCW quickly edited them into brief clips, overlaid with creepy music, and featured these clips on their websites (February 23 and 24, 2020). The media covered these clips the same day (February 24), but unfortunately, NIH did not appear to comment in the initial coverage:

“When contacted Monday, NIH asked for a written list of questions to be submitted. It had not replied to the questions as of Monday night.”

We’ve written before about who “no comment” works for—it benefits groups like WCW and PETA by giving heed a message that is incomplete and politicized.

Finally, this week, we are happy to see that NIH has added its voice to this  story. In a recent NBC News article, for example, NIH appears with this general statement:

“Asked about the lawmakers’ criticisms, the NIH defended primate testing, saying it has helped scientists understand how the brain copes with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“Monkeys are used in research because of their marked similarities to humans with respect to anatomy, physiology, and behavior,” the agency said in a statement to NBC News.

“Testing procedures produce a range of animal responses, mirroring human traits and attributes, ranging from no response to momentary and transient anxiety. Each animal’s well-being was closely monitored during and after testing by experienced and trained animal care staff and veterinarians. The procedures under question resulted in no harm to any of the animals tested.”

What else could the NIH do?

  • Make statements earlier in the news cycle. If videos are being shared with groups such as WCW that have a clear stop-animal-research-at-all-costs agenda, then why not be proactive and put them in the right context before you are put on the defensive?
  • Be proactive. The bland NIH comment in the NBC article is too little, too late. NIH should have been prepared to comment when it released the videos, before WCW had a chance to edit them, and should have done so proactively, on its own website and social media channels, and also in a press release. That’s what Communications and Public Relations Offices are for!
  • Explain the research. Specifically, explain the studies under attack: the public appreciates transparency and information on why the work is necessary, how the animals are cared for and what the work aims to achieve. Openness, transparency, and proactive actions are the best ways to prepare for events like these.
  • Be clearer and more specific. While it is good to see NIH making a positive statement about nonhuman primate research, the statement is general and vague. As we wrote in early 2015 when a similar event occurred at NIH, “How many more cases like this will there be before the leaders of the scientific community take action to prevent the regulatory system from becoming primarily a tool of the animal rights propaganda machine?”
  • Make its policy publicly available. Or if a policy is not available then create one, in regards to NIH scientists addressing media and lawmakers themselves. There is no more powerful or accurate voice than that of the scientists that work with and care for the animals and can articulate the necessity and importance of the work.
  • Combat partial reporting. Are NIH scientists not allowed to speak to the media? If so, why? If not, why hasn’t the public been able to hear from them? If scientists are speaking but their voice is not heard in the media that is an indication of partial reporting and needs to be identified and rebutted at every instance.
  • Connect the dots. Help the public understand how studies like these are in the public interest, and the importance of selecting the best model and methods to answer health questions. Most importantly, be sure the public understands what is at stake if such research is thwarted.

~ Speaking of Research

One thought on “Scientists to NIH leadership: Defend mental health research that is under attack

  1. Thank you for writing this important article. It is essential that NIH and other scientific organizations defend the need for certain experiments with animals, including the experiments referenced here.

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