Sunday, July 8, 2012

Cruel Gibberish Masquerades as Science...

or, What Idiot Thinks this Cruel Nonsense Ought to be Supported with Taxpayers' Money while People Go Without Healthcare, and are Forced to Live in their Cars?

It was just over five years ago, Saturday, June 23, 2007, to be exact, that I first referenced the work of Allyson Joy Bennett. I mentioned a presentation/poster at the 2007 annual meeting of the American Society of Primatologists she co-authored. It was titled LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF EARLY REARING ENVIRONMENT ON BEHAVIORAL ACTIVITY IN ADULT MALE RHESUS MONKEYS (MACACA MULATTA).

I mentioned her again on May 11, 2012, in an essay titled Mothers Day Canceled. In that essay I mistakenly accused her of maternally depriving baby rhesus monkeys for her currently funded project at UW-Madison. I followed up with two essays on May 28, Speaking of Research and morality and Speaking of Research? Not so much.

Then, on June 3, I explained the events that contributed to my confusion and shared some of the university's responses to my still unfulfilled request for the approved protocol that insiders say does indeed include maternally depriving infant rhesus monkeys of maternal contact and care. That essay is Bennett, Kalin, Maternal Deprivation, and Me.

The rest of this particular essay is a criticism of Bennett's currently funded project as described in her currently approved protocol which you can view here.

There are two distinct elements of most basic research using animals that should be considered when trying to arrive at an informed conclusion about a particular project: 1. Is the science sound? 2. Are the animals harmed, and if so, is the information being sought significant enough to counterbalance the harm being done to them.

Question number 2 is polarizing; the answer may lay outside any commonly-held moral calculus. In my opinion, the only fair measure of the experimental use of most commonly used species would have to include an equal willingness to perform the same experiment on a human if the results would be more applicable by doing so. In the opinion of most supporters of the status quo, any funded study -- by definition -- is seeking information significant enough to warrant any approved use of animals.

Question number 1 ought to be less polarizing, but in fact often isn't. Nevertheless, certain elements in question 1 can be examined more or less dispassionately and some reasonable observations concerning it can be made.

Bennett explains her justification for this project:
The goal of this research is to determine how different experiences in infancy affect aspects of behavior, cognition, brain morphology and health across the lifespan.
She goes on to say that:
This work is important for advancing our understanding of factors that contribute to individual differences in both human and laboratory animal health. Human studies provide strong evidence of the deleterious consequences of early childhood stress. What is far less clear—but critically important to research aimed at developing strategies to improve human health—is the specific mechanisms by which these changes occur, how they unfold across the lifespan, and which changes are long-lasting in absence of additional, or cascading, adverse events. Understanding these and other aspects of the consequences of a range of childhood adverse experiences is essential to developing treatment and intervention strategies.
This has to be read with the actual question she is answering in mind:
In straight-forward, nonmedical, nontechnical language that would be understandable to a layperson (aim for a high school-senior reading level), outline the specific scientific goal(s) and significance of this research. Be convincing as to why this work is important for advancement of knowledge, improving human or animal health, or for the good of society...
Bennett's answer -- her effort to be "convincing" -- isn't.

She says that human studies provide strong evidence of the deleterious consequences of early childhood stress and that's very true. Real life events have provided an overwhelmingly larger more meaningful body of evidence of the deleterious consequences of early childhood stress as well as insights into "the consequences of additional, or cascading, adverse events." The best known most widely written about and studied examples are the so-called Ceausescu orphans. I urge readers to Google this topic: Romania orphans.

Scientific studies of the children from the Romanian orphanages abound. The Bucharest Early Intervention Project has resulted at least 23 papers since 2003, including these titles:

Recovering from early deprivation: attachment mediates effects of caregiving on psychopathology.

Early adversity and neural correlates of executive function: Implications for academic adjustment.

Alterations in Neural Processing and Psychopathology in Children Raised in Institutions.

Effect of foster care on language learning at eight years: Findings from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project.

When is research socially valuable? Lessons from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project: commentary on a case study in the ethics of mental health research.

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project: case study in the ethics of mental health research.

Genetic sensitivity to the caregiving context: The influence of 5httlpr and BDNF val66met on indiscriminate social behavior.

Commentary: handling long-term attrition in randomised controlled field trials: lessons from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project and reflections on Fox et al. (2011).

Effect of foster care on young children's language learning.

Telomere length and early severe social deprivation: linking early adversity and cellular aging.

Psychiatric outcomes in young children with a history of institutionalization.

The effects of severe psychosocial deprivation and foster care intervention on cognitive development at 8 years of age: findings from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project.

Modification of depression by COMT val158met polymorphism in children exposed to early severe psychosocial deprivation.

Effects of early psychosocial deprivation on the development of memory and executive function.

A new model of foster care for young children: the Bucharest early intervention project.

Cognitive recovery in socially deprived young children: the Bucharest Early Intervention Project.

Language acquisition with limited input: Romanian institution and foster care.

The discrimination of facial expressions by typically developing infants and toddlers and those experiencing early institutional care.

An event-related potential study of the impact of institutional rearing on face recognition.

Attachment in institutionalized and community children in Romania.

Others have and continue to study the people who spent their early years in these institutions:

5HTT genotype moderates the influence of early institutional deprivation on emotional problems in adolescence: evidence from the English and Romanian Adoptee (ERA) study. Kumsta R, Stevens S, Brookes K, Schlotz W, Castle J, Beckett C, Kreppner J, Rutter M, Sonuga-Barke E. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2010 Jul;51(7):755-62. Epub 2010.

Dopamine transporter gene polymorphism moderates the effects of severe deprivation on ADHD symptoms: developmental continuities in gene-environment interplay. Stevens SE, Kumsta R, Kreppner JM, Brookes KJ, Rutter M, Sonuga-Barke EJ. Am J Med Genet B Neuropsychiatr Genet. 2009.

A longitudinal study of the physical growth and health of postinstitutionalized Romanian adoptees. Le Mare L, Audet K. Paediatr Child Health. 2006.

Influence of institutionalization on time to HIV disease progression in a cohort of Romanian children and teens. Ferris M, Burau K, Constantin AM, Mihale S, Murray N, Preda A, Ross M, Kline MW. Pediatrics. 2007.

Abnormal brain connectivity in children after early severe socioemotional deprivation: a diffusion tensor imaging study. Eluvathingal TJ, Chugani HT, Behen ME, Juhász C, Muzik O, Maqbool M, Chugani DC, Makki M. Pediatrics. 2006.

Daniela's legacy. Nurturing Romanian orphans. Farruggia M. J Christ Nurs. 2003.

Local brain functional activity following early deprivation: a study of postinstitutionalized Romanian orphans. Chugani HT, Behen ME, Muzik O, Juhász C, Nagy F, Chugani DC. Neuroimage. 2001.

Romania's forgotten children. SoRelle R. J Int Assoc Physicians AIDS Care. 1998.

The Romanian pediatric AIDS initiative. Kline MW. J Int Assoc Physicians AIDS Care. 1998.

Analysis of environmental deprivation: cognitive and social development in Romanian orphans. Kaler SR, Freeman BJ. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 1994.

Foster care and adoption policy in Romania: suggestions for international intervention. Johnson AK, Edwards RL, Puwak H. Child Welfare. 1993.

Caring for the Romanian orphans. Vigilante K. R I Med. 1993.

Neuropsychiatric assessment of orphans in one Romanian orphanage for 'unsalvageables'. Rosenberg DR, Pajer K, Rancurello M. JAMA. 1992.

Chronic hepatitis B in adopted Romanian children. Zwiener RJ, Fielman BA, Squires RH Jr. J Pediatr. 1992.

Lighting a candle in the Romanian darkness. Gallagher T. Med War. 1992.

Literally hundreds of children born and raised in severely socially and environmentally deprived conditions have been and are being studied in a variety of environments. The notion that Bennett's study of six monkeys will or even could lead to "strategies to improve human health" that haven't been already discovered or will be more likely to be discovered more readily as a result of longitudinal studies of humans is ludicrous in the face of the flow of information resulting from the longitudinal studies of the Ceausescu orphans.

If such a large number of children born and raised in severely deprived conditions are already being studied, why doesn't Bennett either study those individuals or leave the research to others? How does she justify a need for monkeys as stand-ins for socially deprived humans? She was required to answer this question in her protocol: "Specifically justify the use of animals for this research." This is what she said:
Animal models are critical to this effort for a number of reasons. Among them are obvious ethical prohibitions that preclude humans from many of the studies needed to identify mechanisms and to evaluate potential treatment and intervention strategies.
This is just more gibberish, and to the extent that it makes any sense whatsoever is just silly and wrong. She says later on that she will do three different things in her study: have the monkeys solve puzzles, keep track of how much they move around, and periodically scan their brains. She says that nothing she plans to do to the monkeys will cause more than momentary slight discomfort or stress. So what is it that she is doing that would be obviously unethical to do to humans? Why does she need monkeys?

The only thing she is doing to the monkeys that would be unethical to do to humans is keeping them in solitary confinement. She claims that doing this won't cause them more than momentary slight distress, but this too is wrong. In fact, a wealth of data demonstrates unequivocally that individually housing rhesus monkeys has deleterious consequences. In one study of 362 individually housed rhesus monkeys, 321 exhibited at least one abnormal behavior. (Stereotypic and self-injurious behavior in rhesus macaques: a survey and retrospective analysis of environment and early experience. Lutz C, Well A, Novak M. Am J Primatol. 2003.)

Bennett continues trying to support her claim that her six monkeys will be better more productive subjects of study than the hundreds of people being studied over their lifetimes who were raised in the Romanian orphanages:
The strength and unique opportunity offered by studies of middle-aged monkeys who vary in early infant experiences emerges most clearly when viewed against background consideration of the range of variation in human experiences. Thus, the results of our studies contribute important information about how early life events influence individual differences in a wide range of behavioral, neural and physiological processes that are essential to healthy development across the lifespan.

There are no non-animal alternatives that could be used to address the questions under study here.
If the actual background considerations that her monkeys are being forced to endure were not so absolutely bleak, her claim would be merely laughable, but the reality is that the twelve monkeys she is using -- six who were raised with a mother, six without -- are being forced to live alone in an environment that cannot result in their "healthy development across the lifespan."

I particularly like her statement: "[T]he results of our studies contribute important information..." Such hubris.

What's even more pitiful than her wild claims is the fact that people who themselves claim publicly to carefully evaluate the importance of a project before approving the use of animals signed off on this repetitively cruel wasteful nonsense.

I'll give Allyson Joy Bennett the last word:
These animals will be individually-housed. The animals are 15 years old and over the course of that time have been housed in different settings. In infancy the animals were housed either in social groups with their mothers, other infants and adults or in small age-mate peer groups. Through the juvenile and early adolescent period the animals were socially-housed in small groups or pairs. As is typical and expected for male macaques, aggression and injuries increased during adolescence (4-6 years of age) and some animals were not able to be safely maintained in compatible groups or pairs. Animals who were involved in aggressive encounters that resulted in significant serious injuries requiring veterinary intervention were individually housed within visual and olfactory distance of other monkeys and with an extensive environmental enrichment program.

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