Lori Gruen has had a post up for a while at New APPS, on the renewal of maternal deprivation research at UW Madison. Here is her description of what the researchers plan to do:
A psychiatry professor who has a distinguished record of research on anxiety disorders plans to separate more monkey babies from their mothers, leave them with wire “surrogates” covered in cloth (a practice developed by Harlow) to emulate “adverse early rearing conditions,” then pair them with another maternally deprived infant after 3-6 weeks of being alone. The infants will then be exposed to fearful conditions. The monkeys in this group and another group of young monkeys who will be reared with their mothers, will then be killed and their brains examined.
The protocol describes the value of the research as follows:
While numerous studies have been performed examining the effects of surrogate/peer in nonhuman primates, no studies have been performed examining the effects of this rearing modification on brain development using state of the art imaging and molecular methods. These efforts will allow us to identify the exact brain regions affected, the changes in gene function in these regions, and the specific genes that are involved increasing the early risk to develop anxiety and depression. Such information has the potential to identify new targets in specific brain regions that can lead to new ideas about treatment and even prevention of the long-term suffering associated with early adversity. For example, understanding the involvement of brain chemicals that have never before been implicated in anxiety, will allow the field to begin to search for medications that affect these newly identified systems. In addition, the molecular information, combined with the imaging data, may allow for interventions that target novel brain regions that are critically involved in anxiety and depression.
Part of me is very resistant to forgoing human benefits for the sake of non-human animals. The other part of me thinks that the more like a human being an animal is (and thus the more likely research on it is to be useful for the treatment of humans) the more likely it is that the animal has a high degree of moral status. And there can be no question that the monkeys will be caused psychological harm by this study, since the monkeys’ susceptibility to anxiety and distress is an integral part of the research. And while studies of this kind do differ from Harlow’s experiments involving total social isolation, they still seem spectacularly cruel.
The university seems to have been pretty unforthcoming about the research. A quick Google Search for “maternal deprivation UW Madison” shows the top hits as a page against the research by Alliance for Animals, a Madison-based animal rights group, a petition by Gruen to the UW Provost to stop the research, and another website hosted by Alliance for Animals that has a pledge for alumni to refrain from donating to UW until the maternal deprivation experiments are stopped. But I don’t see anything by UW. I’d be interested to know if anyone has seen more information. Or could offer a convincing defense.