Harvard studies on infant monkeys draw fire, split scientists | Science

Primatologists and animal rights activists are condemning monkey studies in the laboratory of Harvard University neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone. The work, which involves removing newborns from their mothers and, in two cases in 2016, suturing their eyelids shut to understand how the primate brain processes faces, is cruel and unethical, they say. But some neuroscientists defend the studies as crucial for understanding human vision.

Livingstone says the eyelid suturing procedure she and colleagues utilized is similar to that used to treat children with eye tumors and invasive eye infections—and they have no plans to use it again. But some of her studies still involve separating infant monkeys from their mothers.

That’s shocking to Catherine Hobaiter, a primatologist at the University of St. Andrews who has studied primates in the wild for 17 years. “As a scientist, I question what we are learning that we couldn’t learn in another way,” she says. “As a human, I’m horrified.”

On Monday, Hobaiter and her graduate student, Gal Badihi, sent a letter to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) signed by more than 250 animal behavior researchers, grad students, and postdocs, asking it to retract Livingstone’s most recent publication. The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has done the same. It has also asked Harvard to terminate Livingstone’s studies, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to defund the work.

Such efforts could crush research “critical for human survival and empathy,” says Bertha Madras, a neuroscientist at Harvard who has conducted brain imaging studies of monkeys for decades but doesn’t work directly with Livingstone. “If we’re going to understand how the brain functions, we’re going to have to do experiments that generate visceral reactions,” she says. “We have to be looking at the greater good.”

Livingstone has spent 40 years studying vision in monkeys. To determine how the parts of the brain responsible for recognizing faces develop, her team sometimes removes rhesus macaques from their mothers after birth and hand-raises them for months, eventually housing them with other juveniles. In some experiments, the infants see no faces for a year, either because laboratory staff wear masks, or because the researchers effectively blind them. In 2016, the team sewed the eyelids shut in two monkeys; the sutures dissolved in a few days, but the eyes remained closed for a year. Since then, Livingstone says her team has used noninvasive approaches such as goggles.

Few primatologists were aware of the experiments until Livingstone published an article in PNAS last month. The paper was not a standard research report; instead PNAS invited Livingstone to pen the piece as an “Inaugural Article” to highlight her contributions to the field as a newly elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.  

Titled “Triggers for mother love,” the piece recounts anecdotal observations Livingstone made in the course of her research—specifically after giving soft stuffed animals to monkey mothers whose infants her team had removed for vision experiments. The paper focused on maternal behavior, reporting that the toys often calmed the mothers down. But it also drew attention to the research on the infants, detailed in a 2020 PNAS research paper and other publications.

The fact that PNAS would highlight this work is deeply troubling to Hobaiter, who also serves as the vice president for communications for the International Primatological Society. Decades of research have shown how critical the mother-child bond is in nonhuman primates, she says. Orphaned animals “shut down socially. … In some cases, they never recover”—to say nothing of the impact on the mothers. Livingstone’s recent paper, she says, adds nothing meaningful to our understanding of primate behavior. “It fails on every scientific and ethical level.”

Hobaiter and Badihi sent a draft letter detailing their concerns to a few colleagues. “It snowballed,” she says, eventually collecting 257 signatures from across the globe. The final letter asks PNAS to retract the paper, which Hobaiter says raises questions about all invasive research with primates. “We cannot ask monkeys for consent,” it reads. “But we can stop using, publishing, and … actively promoting cruel methods that knowingly cause extreme distress.”

A spokesperson says PNAS is aware of the concerns and is “evaluating formal criticism submitted to the journal,” but declined to comment further.

Last week, Katherine Roe, a former experimental psychologist who studied brain development in children and who now serves as the chief of science advancement and outreach at PETA, sent letters to Harvard and two NIH agencies. She called Livingstone’s work inhumane and unscientific, and asked the institutions to end their support for it. “The long-term harms that these experiments are causing the mothers and the babies far outweigh any potential benefit to humans,” Roe says. “The benefits are always ‘potential.’ The harms are definite.”

Livingstone counters that her work builds on Nobel Prize–winning science that helped treat vision loss in children. Her research has provided insights into social deficits caused when autistic children look less at faces than neurotypical children do, she says, and has helped develop therapies for Alzheimer’s disease and some brain cancers.

PETA launched a public relations and social media campaign last week targeting both the maternal separation in Livingstone’s work and the eyelid sewing, which it called “straight out of a horror movie.”

The social media storm is taking its toll, Livingstone says. “I’ve become the target of increasingly hostile harassment, and I am seriously fearful for my own and my family’s safety.” She says she has received “violent, threatening, and obscene” calls and emails. Harvard released a statement on Friday condemning these “personal attacks.” It has not responded to further requests for comment.

In its statement, Harvard says all of Livingstone’s work rigorously follows federal guidelines for animal research, and it has been approved by the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which is designed to ensure that animals are properly cared for and only necessary experiments take place.

That’s a point echoed by Michael Goldberg, a neurologist at Columbia University who treats human patients and studies perception in monkeys. These committees don’t take their jobs lightly, says Goldberg, who was one of the reviewers of this year’s PNAS paper; they only approve experiments if there’s no other way to answer the question. Livingstone’s work is “ethical and justified,” he says. “This isn’t unnecessary cruelty to animals—it’s critical research.”

Hobaiter notes that ethics continue to evolve, especially when it comes to animal research. She hopes the current debate prompts more discussion about the issue. “Just because your university ethics committee sets minimal standards doesn’t mean you can’t do better,” she says. “As scientists, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

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