This monkey being experimented on at the University of Utah was photographed by undercover PETA activists in 2009.
Addiction experiments on monkeys, mice and other animals have come under fire from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and others because of the incredible cruelty involved in forcing animals to become addicted and then studying the effects by tormenting and killing them.
In a column last week on Substance.com, titled “Animal Rights Activists Are Exploiting Prejudice Against People With Addiction,” the suggestion that efforts to end these experiments are based on a misunderstanding of addiction or a willingness to marginalize the plight of people suffering from addiction is misinformed. The real reason that harming animals in this way is an especially egregious waste of life and billions of dollars is that these studies do not benefit addiction sufferers because they can never adequately recapitulate this multifaceted and uniquely human affliction.
As a neuroscientist, I recognize that addiction is a devastating, complex affliction with biological, environmental and social roots, and that it is critical for scientists to continue investigating its underlying causes and potential treatments. However, the dependence on oversimplified experiments conducted on the wrong species for these investigations is unethical, archaic and ineffective at elucidating either causes or treatments.
For a recent experiment at Harvard Medical School examining the similarity of biological and behavioral responses to methamphetamine, nicotine and nicotine-related substances, squirrel monkeys were locked in restraint chairs, had electrodes placed on their shaved tails, were injected with various compounds and forced to press a lever to avoid being repeatedly shocked. At high doses, the monkeys began drooling and vomiting. The project has received more than $500,000 since 2012 despite its obvious irrelevance to any actual conditions faced by addicted people.
In a recent study by a team at Columbia University’s Department of Psychology that has received nearly $1 million, female monkeys were isolated in metal cages, surgically implanted with catheters, immobilized in restraint devices and trained to pull levers in exchange for infusions of cocaine. The researchers concluded that cocaine use does not vary across the female monkey’s menstrual cycle, something they acknowledged was already known from studies in human drug users.
In another set of recent experiments conducted at Oregon Health and Science University and Wake Forest University looking at the effect of alcohol exposure on the brain, monkeys were locked alone in cages and given only water spiked with ethanol to force them to develop dependency on the drug. They were then given alcohol on a daily basis for a year—some consumed the human equivalent of 12 drinks a day—before undergoing brain-imaging procedures or being killed and having their brains dissected. The experimenters in this case merely confirmed something already observed in humans—that ethanol exposure reduces gray-matter volume and effects serotonergic functioning in the brain.
Animal experimenters often argue that their strictly controlled studies eliminate all the additional social and biological influences associated with real human addiction. This is not true. First, subjecting animals to pain and distress invariably introduces its own set of physiological variables that confound and confuse any data being collected. Second, alcoholism is a human disease caused by a constellation of factors, and only by identifying the role of these additional influences can we define a clear etiology and subsequent treatment path for individual addiction sufferers. Ignoring them in favor of oversimplified, one-dimensional experiments on animals who do not naturally suffer from the affliction is both costly and futile.
Indeed, a recent article in the journal Psychopharmacology examining the use of animals in drug addiction studies concluded that “tremendous resources have been devoted to the development of pharmacotherapies for drug addiction, with relatively little or no long-term success.” Over the past two decades, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has sponsored human trials of more than 100 new anti-alcoholism drugs in a total of 25,000 people. From these trials—which were all green-lighted based on experiments on animals—only one new drug (naltrexone) has been approved by the FDA and its benefits are limited.
This staggering failure rate represents countless animal lives lost, tens of billions of dollars squandered and the hopes of millions of suffering people dashed by projects that were doomed to fail because of inherent biological differences between species and the particularly human nature of drug addiction. All the while, promising new research that may actually help people goes underfunded, as do services and care that would immediately and directly improve the lives of people with addiction.
Last year, the former director of the National Institutes of Health, Elias Zerhouni, MD, said that experimenting on animals has been a waste. Dr. Zerhouni, who is currently the head of global research and development at one of the world’s biggest drug companies, said, “We have moved away from studying human disease in humans…We all drank the Kool-Aid on that one, me included….The problem is that [animal testing] hasn’t worked, and it’s time we stopped dancing around the problem….We need to refocus and adapt new methodologies for use in humans to understand disease biology in humans.” Yet the NIH continues to devote nearly half of its $30 billion research budget to projects involving experiments on animals.
In the area of addiction research, we already have non-animal research tools to help us more effectively and efficiently investigate this human affliction. Research studies using epidemiological data, as well as cutting-edge genetics, genomics and neuroimaging technology have been making great strides in establishing the most effective interventions, pharmaceuticals and behavioral therapies, and allowing us to truly understand the complex interplay of biological and environmental influences on addiction.
Shocking, mutilating, sickening and imprisoning other thinking, feeling animals in experiments is always unethical—a sentiment now shared by 40% of the American public—and society unfortunately pays the price with this ever-expanding list of failed treatments for people. Hopefully, people with addiction and their advocates will appreciate that addiction is one of the many areas where humans will benefit as soon as the scientific community breaks its animal experimentation habit.
Please call on the NIH to stop funding experiments on animals here.
Katherine Roe, Ph.D., is a research associate in the Laboratory Investigations Department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). She previously conducted brain-imaging research with human subjects at the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of California–San Diego.
This article originally appeared on Substance.com.