Strategic monkeys.  What role do primates play in research?

Strategic monkeys. What role do primates play in research?

We want to understand how our brains work, we want to cure neurodegenerative diseases, but all truly revealing research needs living brains. As there are not many human volunteers, primates have become the subject of these efforts, but also the cause of a worldwide controversy.

With its 85 billion nerve cells and over 100,000 billion synapses, the human brain remains one of the most complex structures on Earth. Cells process information, and people can become aware and think. Moreover, it is all the more mysterious as the brain can only be analyzed when it is alive (the dissection of a dead brain provides limited information). And how, in order to truly understand the brain, one must examine how long it is active in the body, the huge problem arises – what man in all minds would volunteer to let even the most modern and least invasive medical equipment be introduced to him? in the brain to examine it. The associated risks are undeniable – infection or a malfunction of the brain.

This is how the specialists who want to understand the human brain turned to our closest relatives – primates. Only controversy arises, notes the British magazine The Economist. The usefulness of monkeys as a model for human neurology raises the stakes for experiments on them – and they suffer as much as a human, right ?! The major difference is that monkeys cannot agree to be treated in this way and, if they could, they would certainly not accept it.

Because we are very different, and the controversy has had a different impact in different parts of the world. In Europe and America, under pressure from activists, the volume of neuroscience research done on monkeys has decreased or stagnated – laws are already under discussion to suspend such research. But there are also places where this research explodes – China and Japan.

Now it remains for America and Europe to catch up. Leaving China to continue this kind of research without a comparable accelerated program would be strategically stupid, according to the British publication. A similar laboratory in Shanghai has already attracted a whole team of top researchers looking for new ways to access and manipulate the brain (for example, doctor Nikos Logothetis, a neurologist at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen, before moving to China). in 2020).


Better knowledge of the human brain is not always a force for good. Given that civilian-military borders no longer exist in certain sectors in China, not much can be done to prevent it from gaining the capacity to build neuroarms at some point, based on current neuroscience research programs. That is why the democracies of the developed world must keep pace as much as possible and have similar programs over which they have full control so that they do not become dependent on China.

If laboratories in China or Japan are able to come up with treatments for neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, it will be almost impossible for the West to refuse to buy them for its citizens. Research on monkeys (especially macaques) is becoming increasingly unpopular in Europe and the United States. Europe is committed to reviewing the legislation on this research every five years and intends to stop it permanently in the unspecified future.

However, letting others do the dirty work to generate knowledge and progress using means that Westerners consider immoral, but at the same time encouraging future applications, is not at all ethical. It’s hypocrisy.

Maintaining the supremacy of America and Europe in research must be an argument for taking responsibility for the suffering that this research causes. Another argument – China must not stand out as the winner of this research. Researchers should also be more courageous when defending their work, and governments should protect it with legal frameworks. In addition, some experiments can be avoided today by using computer simulations.

It is true, however, that with so little knowledge of the human brain, live research will remain essential in the years to come. Human volunteers may be an alternative to monkeys, but there is not enough critical mass, although more and more people agree to participate in biomedical studies.

Inserting sensors into the brain near neurons remains extremely difficult. But the tools with which the brain is examined today are getting smaller and less invasive. They may be injected at some point, but there’s more to it. And until then, monkeys remain the only option to study.

The most reputable laboratories in China, such as the Shanghai Institute of Neuroscience, focus on raising monkeys whose genomes have been altered so that they are as physiologically similar to humans as possible and thus useful in research.

Genetic changes in animal biomedical research (but exclusively in mice) have become common throughout the world. But no laboratory in the US or Europe has genetically modified monkeys, only a few laboratories in China and Japan.

From year to year, China is becoming the global center of neuroscientific research using monkeys. The stakes are high – neuronal disorders (Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, dementia) are the second leading cause of death from heart disease.

Technology companies are also hoping that, by better understanding the brain, they will be able to create more and more intelligent programs. And the generals are looking very closely at the progress of neuroscience to develop more powerful weapons. Moreover, the current pandemic seems to have strengthened the advance that China already has. In February 2020, the Beijing government banned the export of all wildlife in an effort to discourage trade in wildlife. Exceptions for research laboratories need the approval of the authorities.

Until recently, most monkeys used in American laboratories were imported from farms in China. Now, the suspension of exports has stopped everything in the United States. China keeps primates for its own research. It has an ambitious goal set in the “China 2025” plan since 2015 – understanding the human brain is one of the priority areas of scientific research included in that plan, says Kirk Leech of the European Association for Animal Research. And to achieve this, it needs as many monkeys as possible, which the Chinese government has declared a strategic resource.


Different attitudes towards monkey research will have three consequences, according to The Economist. America and Europe will want the progress made by means they consider unethical and will have to reconcile that. According to World Health Organization figures, about one billion people today suffer from various neurological conditions. The treatments for them will inevitably involve the results of research on monkeys, which will become extremely valuable.

Competition for supply chain control will also deepen – the pandemic has already exposed the importance of Chinese supply chains for medical equipment. And if the most advanced knowledge in the field of neuroscience will be concentrated in China, implicitly the newest treatments will also appear there. And as governments around the world are already afraid to introduce Chinese-made network equipment into their citizens’ homes, they will be just as reluctant to put Chinese medical technology in their brains.

Although there is only one monkey in each of the 2,000 animal labs, according to neuroexpert Stefan Treue, who works at the University of Göttingen in Germany, the controversy is fierce. The reason – their social life and intelligence make the tests on monkeys disturbing compared to any other animal. Beyond controversy, however, they are irreplaceable for scientists.

Mission impossible?

How close or far away is scientific research, in fact, from understanding one’s own brain?

TECHNOLOGY. The Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai (China) is the largest buyer of Neuropixel, a new, less invasive probe that is much easier to insert into macaque brains. The institute bought 3,000 such probes even when they were launched on the market, which allowed it to collect information on an unprecedented scale. Placing sensors in a monkey’s brain, however, continues to pose considerable risks even in the case of the Neuropixel probe. EXPERIMENTS. Researchers at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki, Japan, have developed a genetically modified line of marmoset monkeys that are small and naturally live in America and Central America. Together with researchers at the Center for Neurology, also in Japan, they created a 3D atlas that maps unique cognitive functions in primates and humans, as well as neurodegenerative diseases that affect these functions. PROGRESS. Probing and examining how the brain works is the 21st century equivalent of exploring the farthest reaches of the Earth. Researchers have not yet fully understood the brain of a roundworm – which has only 302 neurons and about 7,000 synapses – but are working and hoping to do so with the human brain.

This article appeared in issue 122 of . magazine.