Sunday, August 17, 2014

University experts stumble over facts

Cue the spin doctors.

True to form, UW-Madison's experts responded with a cacophony of either ignorant or calculated false claims in response to the recent article in Madison's somewhat progressive weekly, the Isthmus.

Where to start? Well, let's see...

First, there was yet another paroxysm of confusion from Dr. Robert N. Golden. I replied earlier to his first error-laden letter to the editor defending the torture of young monkeys by his his colleague Dr. Ned Kalin after Dr. Murry Cohen criticized Dr. Kalin's methods(all three of the doctors are psychiatrists)in a letter to the editor in the Capital Times (Monkey studies vital...), another of Madison's progressive weeklies, The Capital Times. [Wisconsin is the birthplace of the Progressive Party, in case you didn't know.]

In his newest attempt to defend the indefensible, he criticizes the Isthmus for "promulgating the animal activists' claims" that the university is "reviving" Harry Harlow's work. He put quotation marks around the word for some odd reason. He must not have reviewed the minutes of the committee meetings when the project was discussed. Some decidedly not-animal-rights-activists university staff also see it that way.

He must not have reviewed the information at

No one has claimed that Kalin is isolating monkeys for as long as Harlow and his students did, or that they are being placed in the vertical chamber, but Golden is uninformed apparently about Harlow's work. The reason Kalin is isolating infant monkeys at birth, isolating them for month or so, pairing them with a similarly traumatized infant, and frightening them with novel experiences is that doing so was shown by Harlow to cause behavioral changes that he and visitors to his lab thought to be evidence of severe depression. Golden apparently hasn't spend much time reviewing Harlow's many publications.

Golden says that Kalin is "following the current state-of-the-art guidelines for the ethical use of of nonhuman primates in research." He's right. Sort of. In a misleading way. First, there aren't any enforceable ethical guidelines, if you use the term to mean what most people commonly believe the word to mean. There are some enforceable rules that regulate to some degree the care and use of primates and other animals, but only one of the rules really matters and can get you into trouble if you break it, that's the one that says researchers have to have permission from their institutional animal care and use committee before proceeding. As long as they have permission, they can do anything to an animal. There is no regulatory limit on what can be done to an animal with permission. That's the state of the art. Moreover, the researcher needs only to get the permission of those who like themselves are using animals and who know that their colleagues may be on the committee when their own project comes up for re-approval. That's the state-of-the-art ethics governing the oversight of experiments on primates today at the university and almost everywhere else in the U.S.

Golden says that Kalin is focusing "on key clinical issues in the treatment of children who have been exposed to early life stresses, including neglect."

This is additionally misleading. Kalin's project design does a poor job at emulating early life stresses of human children. Essentially no children are raised alone and then put in a box with another infant, kept there for a year (actually, because of the differences in maturity rates, you'd have to keep the humans in the box for about three years to approximate the same degree of normal development), and occasionally frightened.

Abuse and neglect are frequently mentioned in tandem. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), (42 U.S.C.A. §5106g), as amended and reauthorized by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010 spells out legal definitions of these terms. A helpful fact sheet on this law is available on line from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Almost nothing about Kalin's project is at all similar to the real life experiences of an abused and/or neglected child. Claims to the contrary must be based on a blunted notion of the complexities of genetics, neurobiology, and chemistry.

Golden repeats the craziest whackiest claim in Kalin's project, that the goal is to: "identify new molecular targets for preventing the emergence of psychiatric illness in children who are exposed to early life trauma."

Think about this. Six year-old Johnny is removed from his home after authorities discover that he wasn't being adequately fed, was sometimes locked in his room for days at a time, and was shaken and slapped frequently. A pediatric psychiatrist examines him and notes that he is underweight, very withdrawn, bites his nails, bites his arms, and still sucks his thumb. No problem. Johnny can simply get an injection of some magic serum or maybe take a couple of pills every day for a few years, and there won't be any serious lasting psychological consequence of his early adversity. Heck, maybe criminals can take it and not have to feel any guilt after their misdeeds. Maybe the military will want to vaccinate soldiers so they won't be bothered by the memories of killing people. Goofy indeed.

Golden says the project was approved only after it was approved by two committees, but again he's either confused or being intentionally misleading. The article reported that most of the members of the College of Letters and Sciences Animal Care and Use Committee were excluded from participating in the final decision. Two people were given the task of making the final approval. I'll wager that both of them experiment on animals themselves.

Eric Sandgren, the university's head vivisector also had a letter printed and tries to change what he told the reporter, but since he pretty much always says whatever seems to sound good at the time, who cares?

There was a sad little letter from from a student named Parker David Tenpas who works at the primate center. Sad and little in the sense that he imagines he has a clue. Maybe his embarrassment at trying to sound informed, heck, maybe he thinks he is, is what led to him blocking public access to his web site? It's no wonder. He writes, "My lab is focused on primate well-being, and we study how these animals interact with toys, television, music, each other and their environment. We care about these animals." Right. I'm sure he tells himself that he cares. In his CV, a once-public document on his now hidden website (see above), he says that his academic(?) mentor is the creepy Peter J. Pierre who has nothing in his CV that suggests he ought to be the Behavioral Management Unit Head. (His CV.) Parker also has the fringe extremist vivisection group Speaking of Research on his short list of important links which makes sense because of Pierre's close connection to the group's not-so-interested-in-speaking darling, Allyson Bennett. The saddest part of his letter was his blind and obedient Sieg heil: "Many perspectives are needed to get the full picture, but as long as irrelevant ones are perpetuated, scientific progress and solutions will be stalled." Apparently, he feels that concerns about suffering and cruelty are irrelevant. He's definitely primate center material. His decision to hide from public view fits the vivisector profile.

Last but certainly not least in its errors was the letter from rat and mouse vivisector Craig Berridge. Berridge is clearly confused. He writes, "... reference is made to earlier work of Dr. Kalin's in which monkeys' amygdalae were 'damaged with acid.' instead, the amygdalae were 'lesioned'/damaged using microinfusions of a specific amino acid to overstimulate glutamate receptors using modern neurosurgical techniques." He sounds so scientific and knowledgeable doesn't he? How could the average reader know that he is full of crap?

In fact, in past experiments, Kalin's methods are crude at best. In one study he sent images of monkeys' acid-damaged brains to a researcher at UC-Davis and had him circle the area that he imagined was the amygdala. That's not very high tech. Moreover, Berridge is wrong about Kalin's use of acid to damage the monkeys' brains. He cites his use of the neurotoxin ibotenic acid in his publications. I don't know whether Berridge is just ignorant and opining about things he doesn't know about or rather is just following in Eric Sandgren's footsteps and making shit up as he goes. Either way, he isn't a reliable source of information about the university's use of animals.

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