Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Looking at Richard Davidson's Assertions

During WISC-TV’s Sunday, June 22, program, "For The Record," Dr. Richard Davidson made a series of assertions to justify the use of monkeys in his invasive brain experiments and his study of fear and anxiety.
Davidson: ... the judicious use of nonhuman primates to address illness models is absolutely crucial. The disease that we are primarily focused on is depression. Depression is the worldwide leading cause of disability for individuals age 5 and older.
The following table is from the National Council on Disability’s letter to the President of the United States, “Keeping Track: National Disability Status and Program Performance Indicators.” April 21, 2008.

In the U.S., at least in the adult population, it doesn’t appear that depression is the leading cause of disability. It isn’t clear what part of “Mental Disability” would include depression, but it’s certainly not all of it. See for instance: Defining mental illness: An interview with a Mayo Clinic specialist.
Davidson: There are almost 100 suicides per day in the United States every year, and those suicides are primarily committed by people with depression… and so it is very clear that the current understanding and current treatments for this devastating illness are thoroughly inadequate to address the magnitude of this problem.

I believe that the judicious use of nonhuman primates for this research has the potential of saving enormous numbers of lives...
This is a graph illustrating data from the 2008 New York Times Almanac (p 384.)

It seems reasonable that a health problem’s magnitude should be judged in relation to other health problems, in this case, causes of death. What Davidson and others are really saying in claims like his, is that any and every cause of human death is of sufficient magnitude to justify the use of nonhuman primates in harmful experimentation. In other words, the magnitude of the problem is inconsequential when deciding whether or not to hurt animals; otherwise, Davison would have to argue that the causes with lower magnitude than suicide aren’t important enough to justify the use of animals. Claims about “the magnitude of the problem” serve only to make his work look more important than it actually is. This is what all vivisectors say about their own work no matter what area or problem they are studying.
Me: [paraphrasing: “The oversight system has been shown to be a failure, but that’s beside the point.] The question that we’re more interested in is how similar to us does another species have to be? We’ve already begun to … ban research on apes around the world. Some countries have already banned research on chimpanzees. Austria has banned research on all apes; that includes all the way down to gibbons. [As if there is an up and down.]

So how similar to us do they have to be? What are the characteristics that an animal has to have before you would think it would just be wrong to hurt it?

I would never hurt you no matter what the benefits for me would be. But you’re saying that the benefits can be so good for you that it’s ok to hurt an animal. So there must be some clear qualitative characteristic that I have that they don’t have, and I just don’t understand what that is.
Davidson: If I can just respond to that. First of all let me clarify the issue of hurt.

In the work that we, I’ve collaborated on in nonhuman primates, I think the word hurt is very misleading. The protocols that we use do not involve pain to the animals. In fact, the research that we do in humans, I would say, we are permitted to inflict more pain, if the protocol requires it, than we can in nonhuman primates.

And so, I think it is deeply misleading to use the term hurt.
This is an astounding statement. If he is being honest, then he simply doesn’t recognize that the monkeys in his studies are being hurt. That’s a degree of numbness to animals’ experiences that seems psychotic or else, he was intentionally misleading.

First, we have to put the monkey labs in context.

Viktor Reinhard, former UW primate veterinarian, has asked: "Is it really so farfetched to compare this situation with that of human prisoners kept in concentration camps?"

In the wild, rhesus monkeys remain with their mothers in their natal groups for many years. Some will spend their entire life in the same group. In the labs, the babies are taken from their mothers early on, in the Harlow lab, where Davidson’s monkeys are bred and kept, they are taken from their mothers at three months of age according to lab director, Christopher Coe.

In the wild, rhesus monkeys live in environmentally complex habitats and interact with many other monkeys in complex social hierarchies. In the labs, they are housed in small barren cages.

The subset of moneys selected by Davidson and his colleagues for use in these studies on fear and anxiety were identified by them as being much more anxious than other monkeys. Thus, they are using the monkeys most likely to be frightened by threats and disruptions.

The monkeys are taken from their home cage to a lab where they are frightened. In various studies, they are confronted with larger unfamiliar monkeys, staring lab workers, and real and rubber snakes.

Afterwards, their scalp is sliced open, a hole drilled through their skull, acid is injected into their brain or parts of their brain is cauterized and sucked out, and then the wound is sewn up. Once they "recover," they are again confronted with the frightening objects, and changes in their behavior are noted. In some studies, the monkeys are killed and their brains examined.

Davidson says, “I think it is deeply misleading to use the term hurt.” Can you imagine doing these things to a child, getting caught, and then claiming that you hadn’t hurt them? Davidson is allowed to hurt human subjects more than this? Doing so would land him in jail. Davidson’s claims are grossly misleading.

Here are some excerpts from his published work:

“This study assessed the role of the primate OFC in mediating anxious temperament and its involvement in fear responses. METHODS: Twelve adolescent rhesus monkeys were studied (six lesion and six control monkeys). Lesions were targeted at regions of the OFC that are most interconnected with the amygdala. Behavior and physiological parameters were assessed before and after the lesions. RESULTS: The OFC lesions significantly decreased threat-induced freezing and marginally decreased fearful responses to a snake.”

“One microliter of ibotenic acid was infused … into 16-23 sites distributed over the entire volume of the amygdala on each side of the brain. During surgery, mannitol was administered over 30 min to control brain swelling. After the ibotenic acid injections were made, the midline incision was sutured, and the animal recovered from anesthesia. To ease postsurgical discomfort, buprenorphine and acetaminophen were administered.”

“In primates, during times of need, calling for help is a universal experience. Calling for help recruits social support and promotes survival. However, calling for help also can attract predators, and it is adaptive to inhibit calls for help when a potential threat is perceived. Based on this, we hypothesized that individual differences in calling for help would be related to the activity of brain systems that mediate goal-directed behavior and the detection of threat. By using high-resolution positron emission tomography in rhesus monkeys undergoing social separation, we demonstrate that increased [18F]-fluoro-2-deoxy-d-glucose uptake in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and decreased uptake in the amygdala independently predict individual differences in calling for help.”
Davidson: “I think that for the very reasons you are describing because some similarities in particular brain structures, in specific, the circuits that are important in regulating emotion, there is I think, a lot of reason to believe that the information that we can glean from nonhuman primates will be extremely important to us and much more important than research at the rodent level for certain key questions.

And I think that this work can be done on a limited number of animals. I think that we need to continuously ask ourselves whether the procedures that we are using are absolutely necessary [and whether] the number of animals is necessary. And I think that there is a lot we can do to keep it to a minimum.

But I think given the magnitude of the human suffering that we are attempting to address, I think that it is in fact irresponsible not to engage in research where there is a clear promise of a new direction that may be pursued to minimize suffering and to minimize mortality and morbidity on a massive scale.
I’ve already shown that the magnitude argument is spurious. But what of his “clear promise of a new direction” argument? Clear promise? A clear promise is about as alien to basic research as sunshine is to the bottom of the Mariana trench. Most basic science researchers admit that they don’t know how their work will be used or even whether it ever will be. They argue that basic research is simply the accumulation of knowledge that might someday be put to some good use. Clear promise? Davidson needs to do his homework. The Institute of Medicine at the National Academies of Science convened a Clinical Research Roundtable in 2000 to analyze the success of basic research. They reported in 2003 that there is a “disconnection between the promise of basic science and the delivery of better health.” See too: Rodriguez, WR. Can biomedical research in the United States be saved from collapse? 2004 MebMD, Veritas Medicine.

And finally: Is Davidson a liar?

He says that he doesn’t have any monkeys and that he doesn’t receive federal grants for experiments on them.

These are true statements, but they probably misled the viewers. The Principle Investigator, or PI, on the grants that paid for the experiments on monkeys that Davidson put his name on, was Ned Kalin, MD., chair of the UW department of psychiatry. But Kalin probably does little to the monkeys himself. Their third colleague, Steve Shelton is likely the actual hands-on vivisector. But so what? In a meeting between Davidson and a group of activists he said that he had access to about 30 monkeys, that he had been involved in some of the surgeries, and that he had seen their living conditions.

Why then, did he try to claim that he is very removed from primate experimentation even while his name is on more than a dozen papers documenting highly invasive experiments on monkeys’ brains? I suspect that the answer has something to do with his embarrassment and his opinion of people’s gullibility.


Anonymous said...

Would you then support studies of heart disease or cancer in animals?

No, and your question misses the point. It was Davidson who repeatedly appealed to the "magnitude" of the problem as a justification for hurting monkeys.

Rick said...

"It seems reasonable that a health problem’s magnitude should be judged in relation to other health problems"

Would you then support studies of heart disease or cancer in animals?

[I accidentally deleted this comment by an anonymous poster and am reposting it. The post above is my response to this one.] ]

Anonymous said...

So why spending so much energy and research to fact-check Davidson when
in your view, the magnitude of the problem is irrelevant.

In your view, saving 10 million lives, 100 million lives, or whatever... does not justify hurting any animals at all.


Rick said...

I think you are confused. George Bernard Shaw observed that people who vivisect don't hesitate to lie about it.

In this case, Davidson misled viewers about the scope of the problem he is studying. It is his claim, not mine, that it is the magnitude of the problem that justifies his use of animals.

The question about the number of lives saved is falacious. On the one hand, the number of lives saved would not justify experiments on non-consenting humans, and if you've been paying attention, the whole point of my argument is that humans and at least some animals have similar enough experiences of the world, that if we think such experiments on humans would be immoral, then they are immoral when conducted on those animals as well. And on the other hand, the evidence that animal models of human disease and drug response have been a productive modality of research on balance is weak at best. The wild assertiuon about millions of lives saved is just that, a wild assertion.

Anonymous said...

Your ad-hominem attack on Davidson has nothing to do with the debate on the morality of animal research. The same way that you getting drunk and e-mailing threatening messages to investigators does not justify primate research either.

“Most basic science researchers admit that they don’t know how their work will be used or even whether it ever will be. They argue that basic research is simply the accumulation of knowledge that might someday be put to some good use.”

That’s correct. Basic research is the accumulation of knowledge and people rarely know the potential applications such knowledge may yield.

Yet, any reasonable person would admit that history demonstrates that basic research has found tremendous applications that have benefited us all.

Your claim that basic research in animals has not contributed to human health is false; it is a big lie.

‘The liar’s punishment is not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.’ -- George Bernard Shaw

Rick said...

"Reasonable" people have believed in silly things throughout history and have supported much nastiness.

"Ad-hominem." That's a hoot. He made misleading claims about his research and his use of monkeys. That's a fact. He doesn't hurt monkeys? Wow.