Sunday, April 13, 2008

Richard Davidson's Mushy-Headedness

On Saturday, April 12, I went with friends to hear Richard Davidson speak and to handout fliers about his primate vivisection to the audience.

When asked why he continues to conduct invasive brain experiments on monkeys, given the sophistication of the scanning technology at his disposal – the basis for essentially all the discoveries he talked about during his lecture – he made three interconnected claims.

First, he said that there are some experiments that cannot be performed on humans; the only ethical way to answer some questions is through experiments on animals. Second, he said that depression is such an important and debilitating condition, that trying to find ways to treat it justifies his invasive experiments on monkeys. And third, he said that it would be irresponsible not to do those experiments given the seriousness of this public health issue.

His primate-related papers are listed below. It is obvious from even a cursory glance at the titles that a) he is not studying depression; and b) he is is not looking for ways to treat depression or even to mitigate anxiety or fear – emotions he is studying.

Further, his claim that the scientific questions he is asking necessitate the use of monkeys is specious. For instance, a very recent study looked at the effects of the anticipation of pain on neurological parameters during fMRI in women with irritable bowel syndrome. (Berman SM, Naliboff BD, Suyenobu B, Labus JS, Stains J, Ohning G, Kilpatrick L, Bueller JA, Ruby K, Jarcho J, Mayer EA. Reduced brainstem inhibition during anticipated pelvic visceral pain correlates with enhanced brain response to the visceral stimulus in women with irritable bowel syndrome. J Neurosci. 2008.)

It might be thought that damaging the brains of humans is unethical, and so, it must be done in monkeys in order to answer Davidson’s questions. But, in fact, the areas of the brain that Davidson is studying in relation to fear and anxiety have been removed partially or entirely in clinical cases. For instance:
Bilateral stereotactic amygdalotomy for the management of patients with severe aggressive behavior disturbances was first introduced by Hideki Narabayashi in 1961. Since then, more than 500 cases have been reported in scientific literature, with a variety of cited behavior improvement rates. (Fountas KN, Smith JR, Lee GP. Bilateral Stereotactic Amygdalotomy for Self-Mutilation Disorder. Stereotact Funct Neurosurg 2007.)
Davidson seeks out practioners of Tibetan Buddhist meditation for his research, but seems unwilling to seek out patients with a history of damage to the brain regions he is interested in. This seems unethical, given the harm he does to the monkeys, and scientifically irresponsible, given the greater predictive value of human data.

But more interesting than Davidson’s apparent laziness and false claims are two other claims he made to his audience. He said that he had canceled some of the experiments that he had planned to do because of the harm they would have done to the monkeys. So, here’s a challenge to Davidson (please don’t hold your breath dear reader): Please compare and contrast the studies you decided to cancel with the procedures you used in "Role of the Primate Orbitofrontal Cortex in Mediating Anxious Temperament" (2007) or "Brain Regions Associated with the Expression and Contextual Regulation of Anxiety in Primates" (2005).

The second claim is the granddaddy of philosophical mushy-headedness. Davidson claimed, as he has done previously when challenged on this matter, that his invasive experiments and fear-inducing procedures are justified by his meritorious intent.

What’s different this time around is that he has co-authored a document stating that anonymous direct actions against vivisectors “are horribly misguided.”

In other words, his intent justifies hurting, frightening, and killing animals he claims are like us emotionally, but flooding someone’s house in order to get them to stop poisoning monkeys with nicotine, and then killing them, isn’t.

I wonder what he thinks people are justified in doing to make him and others like him stop torturing animals? Do animals rate so very low that one’s intent to help them can never measure up to Davidson’s intent to demonstrate something (already known) about monkeys’ brains and emotions?



Automatic physiological waveform processing for FMRI noise correction and analysis. Kelley DJ, Oakes TR, Greischar LL, Chung MK, Ollinger JM, Alexander AL, Shelton SE, Kalin NH, Davidson RJ.PLoS ONE. 2008 [See my comments.]

Role of the Primate Orbitofrontal Cortex in Mediating Anxious Temperament. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ. Biol Psychiatry. 2007

Brain Regions Associated with the Expression and Contextual Regulation of Anxiety in Primates. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Fox AS, Oakes TR, Davidson RJ. Biol Psychiatry. 2005

Calling for help is independently modulated by brain systems underlying goal-directed behavior and threat perception. Fox AS, Oakes TR, Shelton SE, Converse AK, Davidson RJ, Kalin NH. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005

The role of the central nucleus of the amygdala in mediating fear and anxiety in the primate. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ. J Neurosci. 2004

The primate amygdala mediates acute fear but not the behavioral and physiological components of anxious temperament. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ, Kelley AE. Related Articles, J Neurosci. 2001

Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing hormone levels are elevated in monkeys with patterns of brain activity associated with fearful temperament. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ. Biol Psychiatry. 2000

Asymmetric frontal brain activity, cortisol, and behavior associated with fearful temperament in rhesus monkeys. Kalin NH, Larson C, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ. Behav Neurosci. 1998

Individual differences in freezing and cortisol in infant and mother rhesus monkeys. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Rickman M, Davidson RJ. Behav Neurosci. 1998

A new method for aversive Pavlovian conditioning of heart rate in rhesus monkeys. Kalin NH, Shelton SE, Davidson RJ, Lynn DE. Physiol Behav. 1996

Lateralized response to diazepam predicts temperamental style in rhesus monkeys. Davidson RJ, Kalin NH, Shelton SE. Behav Neurosci. 1993

Lateralized effects of diazepam on frontal brain electrical asymmetries in rhesus monkeys. Davidson RJ, Kalin NH, Shelton SE. Biol Psychiatry. 1992

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