Monday, May 15, 2017

NIH Feeds Monsters

monster: something monstrous; especially: a person of unnatural or extreme ... wickedness, or cruelty. His father was a monster who beat his children for no reason. Merriam-Webster
The National Institutes of Health had been targeted by the Trump administration for a reduction in funding, but the agency’s billions of dollars in grants has created a wealthy constituency. These millionaires and their institutions not only depend on NIH largesse, but because of it, they have the resources to hire the best lobbyists to promote the agency that enriches them. It isn’t any surprise that the proposed cut was replaced with a $2 billion increase. Some of it will end up as campaign contributions for those voting to grow the agency or argue against any reduction in its funding.

Day in and day out, there is a steady stream of “news” produced by the agency with claims about yet another scientific advancement, within just the past 30 days:

May 10, 2017: New light-sensing molecule discovered in the fruit fly brain. The discovery could help inform future research into degenerative retinal disorders.

May 3, 2017: Brain “relay” [in mice] also key to holding thoughts in the mind. Thalamus eyed as potential treatment target for schizophrenia’s working memory deficits.

May 2, 2017: NIH discovery in mice could lead to new class of medications to fight mid-life obesity

April 28, 2017: Zika virus persists in the central nervous system and lymph nodes of Rhesus monkeys

April 27, 2017: Antidepressant may enhance drug delivery to the brain. NIH rat study suggests amitriptyline temporarily inhibits the blood-brain barrier, allowing drugs to enter the brain

April 18, 2017: Researchers discover mitochondrial “circuit breaker” that protects [mouse] heart from damage

April 12, 2017: Gene silencing shows promise for treating two fatal neurological disorders. “... researchers showed that injections of the same type of drug into the brains of mice prevented early death and neurological problems associated with ALS, a paralyzing and often fatal disorder.” (Mice don’t get ALS.)

April 12, 2017: NIH scientists advance understanding of herpesvirus infection. “The scientists found they could reactivate latent HSV in a mouse model...”

April 11, 2017: NIH researchers trace origin of blood-brain barrier ‘sentry cells’— Finding in zebrafish may contribute to understanding cognitive decline of aging.

Not one of those discoveries is likely to result in even the smallest advancement in clinical care if the history of the agency’s previous announcements regarding breakthroughs using animal models is any indication of future value.

One of the outlets for NIH-crafted “news” is the NIH Record, a magazine published by the agency since 1949. The featured article in the May 5, 2017 issue was about the work of primate vivisector Michael Shadlen, a professor in the department of neuroscience at Columbia University: "A Look Under the Head: What Can Brain Mechanics Tell Us About Decision-Making?" written by the magazine’s associate editor, Carla Garnett. Not one clinical advance has emerged from his highly invasive and cruel use of monkeys.

Michael Shadlen’s experiments have been paid for by taxpayers for 20 years: MECHANISMS OF VISUAL PERCEPTION 5R01EY011378-20 Former Number: 5R01EY011378-19. Total project funding over the past 20 years: $4,419,543. He also receives an undisclosed amount of funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and probably receives between $2 and $300,000 a year in salary. Experimenting on monkeys’ brains pays well.

The overwhelming bulk of Shadlen’s published papers are reports and speculations on the data gathered during experiments conducted on rhesus macaques. In the 80-ish papers linked to from the Shadlen lab’s website, there are no pictures of the monkeys he has used. There are cartoons of monkeys, but they at best wildly misleading. For instance:

But the monkeys he uses are decidedly not sitting on a stool happily playing a game. In his papers he commonly refers to one of his earlier papers that describes what is actually happening to the monkeys:
Subjects, surgery, and daily routine Three adult rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta, two male and one female) were used in this study. Prior to recording, a stainless steel device for stabilizing head position was surgically attached to the skull (Evarts, 1966) and a scleral search coil for measuring eye movements was implanted around one eye (Judge et al., 1980). Following several months of training on a direction discrimination task, a stainless steel cylinder was surgically implanted over occipital cortex, allowing a posterior electrode approach for electrophysiological recording ... Following recovery from surgery, the monkeys began daily training or recording sessions that lasted from 2 to 6 hr. Each animal was comfortably seated in a primate chair with its head restrained during recording sessions, and was returned to its home cage following the session. The animal’s fluid intake was restricted during recording or training, and behavioral control was achieved using operant conditioning techniques, with water or juice as a positive reward.*
A number of Shadlen’s public lectures are available for public viewing and one is pointed to in the NIH Record article. In that lecture, he concluded with a slide showing a size progression of three brains from mouse to monkey to human, and said: “As we evolved cognition and got bigger and bigger cortical mantle, what was growing essentially was the association cortex,” he said. “I think the basic principles of decision-making that can be studied in these very simple direct paths could be telescoped out to decisions about decisions about decisions—that’s sort of what abstraction is—and that the principles understood at the level of the monkey brain will have some relevance to the kind of complicated things we do with the human brain.” He doesn't understand the basics of evolution; he seems to think it is an action verb. But then, he thinks his work will have relevance someday...

Not to put too fine a point on it, but NIH’s and HHMI’s support for this extremely cruel line of research underscores a profound and damning problem with the modern institution of science. The recent outrage by American scientists over the Trump administration’s funding cuts to this and that program have resulted in a constant barrage of advertising in the form of posts to FaceBook by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the publisher of Science and other journals. I suspect Trump’s anti-science stance has been a financial windfall for lobbying groups like AAAS.

What really gets under my skin about their ads is their repeated exhortation to readers to “Defend evidence-based policymaking,” even though they don’t and wouldn’t if law- and policymakers had the gall to make it a requirement. Doing so would immediately force a halt to the majority of the NIH-funded projects underway, and interfering with that torrent of capital would be unthinkable; its all about money, not evidence. Shadlen’s concluding statement during one of his lectures makes it clear that NIH is more than willing to fund projects without any evidence whatsoever of clinical benefit:

“And I think ultimately to treat diseases one day,” he concluded, “and restore these kinds of operations, integrations and bounds-setting—and lots of things we don’t yet understand obviously—will require manipulating brains at the levels of molecules and circuits. I know in my lab, and for many of you, there’s already at least a dialogue with [scientists] working in all of these levels, interaction with people who do human [brain] imaging and circuit dissection.”

It’s all very richly funded pie-in-the-sky at the expense of millions of animals' suffering-filled lives.

The evidence shows clearly that when money is available, many people will do terrible things to animals and to each other. And in the face of that evidence, NIH keeps paying people to do monstrous things.

*Britten, Kenneth H., Michael N. Shadlen, William T. Newsome, and J. Anthony Movshon. "The analysis of visual motion: a comparison of neuronal and psychophysical performance." Journal of Neuroscience 12, no. 12 (1992): 4745-4765.

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