I recently came across a New Scientist report about research that's being conducted at Zhejiang University in Zijingang, China. Dr. Zheng Xiaoxiang of the Brain-Computer Interface Research Team says that she has trained a monkey to control a robotic hand with its brain. What's especially interesting about this story is that scientists claim to have achieved a new level of fine motor control, allowing the monkey to articulate individual fingers, instead of using a "whole hand" approach, as we've seen previously. This is a vast improvement on previous models since the neuronal connections required for fine motor control are significantly more complicated.
Interestingly, what seems to strike most people when they see this story is the attached photo, which I will admit is unfortunate. The monkey here looks like a disembodied head, but it's not! I think a little context can go a long way. First, it's wearing a cap to cover and protect the small electrodes that are embedded in its brain. Generally speaking, this kind of research is routine and humane--to the extent that it is nearing the stages of regular human trials. Second, its body is there, it's just covered up. It's sitting that way to prevent it from wiggling around and potentially pulling the electrodes loose. Founder of Speaking of Research, an advocacy group dedicated to providing accurate information about the importance of animal research in medical and veterinary science, Tom Holder, says that "we do the exact same thing when we do research with humans...the last thing you want for the human or the animal's welfare is for them to move around when there's something implanted within the brain." And last, that metal tube leading to its mouth is not some archaic torture device, it's a drinking straw. The way researchers train monkeys to perform tasks like using their brains to operate robotic hands is by giving them juice rewards. And let's be honest, monkeys love juice.
Just think about the improvements to quality of life that this kind of research can offer. Soon, it will no longer be the stuff of science fiction that people will wear robotic prosthetics. Para- and quadriplegics will be able to walk again. Veterans who lost limbs will be able to open doors and hold their children. Even famed animal rights advocate Peter Singer (author of the book Animal Liberation) admits that animal testing is ethically sound when lives are at stake. He wrote in 2006 in The Sunday Times, "If an experiment on a small number of animals can cure a disease that affects tens of thousands, it could be justifiable."
According to the Foundation for Biomedical Research:
"Animal research has played a vital role in virtually every major medical advance of the last century -- for both human and veterinary health. From antibiotics to blood transfusions, from dialysis to organ transplantation, from vaccinations to chemotherapy, bypass surgery and joint replacement, practically every present-day protocol for the prevention, treatment, cure and control of disease, pain and suffering is based on knowledge attained through research with lab animals."
When it comes down to it, aren't we mostly debating an arbitrary line that's been drawn in the sand? Do many people think that research on celebrated model organisms Drosophila malanogaster (the common fruit fly) or Caenorhabditis elegans (a nematode) is morally indefensible? If life is life, why don't mice and monkeys fall under the same category as insects and worms? Scientific American blogger Jason G. Goldman elegantly approached this problem previously. But I'm interested to hear your thoughts. How do you think we should be navigating the grey areas of animal research?
Editorial note: In the United States, the federal Animal Welfare Act requires appropriate housing, feeding, handling, sanitation, ventilation and sheltering of most warm-blooded animals used in research; it excludes birds, certain rats and certain mice bred for research. Each lab must also operate within its own local, state, and university guidelines regarding the welfare of animals used for experimentation. In China, the government requires researchers to abide by standardized Regulations on the Management of Experimental Animals, which includes a chapter on animal welfare. If Dr. Zheng Xiaoxiang's lab is abiding by such regulations (and we have no reason to believe it's not), I fully support this research, as it could lead to exciting and necessary advances in the future brain-controlled prosthetics for amputees.
For more information on animal research advocacy, visit the following links:
Speaking of Research
Foundation for Biomedical Research
American Association for Laboratory Animal Science
American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee
American Society of Primatologists
National Center For Research Resources
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the Animal Welfare Act applies to all animals used in research. In fact, the law excludes several groups of research animals from its protections.