Maternal Deprivation Studies to Be Restarted

In a highly controversial decision, the animal care and use committee at the University of Wisconsin has approved an NIH-funded maternal deprivation study on newborn monkeys. This study echoes back to the notorious deprivation studies, done nearly 50 years ago by Harry Harlow, at the same institution. The stated purpose of the research is to use the latest brain scan technologies to attempt to identify changes related to anxiety and depression that occur early in life in the brains of monkeys. The principal investigator believes that data from these scans will bring new medication and psychotherapy strategies for people.

Up to 20 baby monkeys will be taken from their mothers on the day they are born. They will be raised in isolation for three to six weeks and then paired with another maternally deprived baby monkey. Repeated anxiety-inducing tests will be done, followed by brain scans. After six months, the pairs will be split up and matched with new partners. More tests will be done, followed by more brain scans. A second group of 20 baby monkeys will be raised by their mothers and will undergo the same tests. At the end of a year, the 40 monkeys will be killed and their brains examined.

There has been significant uproar about this study and the University of Wisconsin is clearly feeling pressure from the community about proceeding with the study. In a highly unusual decision, the university publicly posted the animal care protocol. Further, the institution opened up to reporters, who published an excellent article in the university newspaper ( describing the storm around the study. The article explains, “The research … has drawn unusual scrutiny and dissent from within the university and intensified a debate about the extent to which benefits to humans justify the suffering of animals.” Such scrutiny is necessary, particularly when newborn monkeys are taken from their mothers.