Graduate students Erica Tennenhouse, right, and Amber Walker-Bolton were pleading for the last two monkeys in research at the Univ. of Toronto be retired to a sanctuary. Photo by Rick Eglinton.
For seven years, scientists studied the brains of two monkeys to see how they adapted to facial injuries. Then they killed them and dissected their brains.
But there is at least some good news: these were the last two monkeys at the University of Toronto, which has no plans to buy or breed more.
“They were our very last non-human primates and we have no intention of using any more,” said Peter Lewis, associate vice-president of research.
It’s not such good news, though, if you’re a smaller animal. “Technology now lets us get the same information from smaller animals,” Lewis added proudly.
Five students had campaigned to save the lives of the two monkeys.
Ph. D. student Erica Tennenhouse co-wrote a passionate letter to university officials asking that the two macaques be retired to a sanctuary. But the animals were already dead from a lethal overdose of anesthetic for the final stage of the study.
“I was surprised by the nature of the experiment. It sounded like a horror movie; stimulating parts of the brain to see how the monkeys react,” Tennenhouse said.
Graduate student Amber Walker-Bolton learned about the experiment at a training course before going to Madagascar to study ring-tailed lemurs “These are creatures capable of enjoying a compassionate retired life even after years of trauma,” she said.
The experiments were led by dentist and neuroscientist Dr. Barry Sessle, who insisted that the monkeys were not subjected to pain, nor restrained for as long as 12 hours at a time, as students had charged.
“It wasn’t pain research and the animal doesn’t feel the electric stimulation from the electrodes because brains aren’t sensitive,” he said. “Most of the pain research I do is on sub-primates (rodents) and they’re anesthetized.” (That would not be much of a relief to the rats. Nor, in fact, for monkeys: the dentist says he will continue the monkey experiments through a laboratory in Chicago.)
The monkey study inserted electrodes into the cerebral cortex to see how the brain adapts when the face is changed due to injury, stroke or even the loss of teeth.
Of some 50,000 vertebrates used each year for scientific research at the U of T, about 85 per cent are mice and rats, thanks to new imaging technology and miniaturization, said Harapa. The rest are mostly fish, plus a few rabbits.