Clearing up Misconceptions or Revealing More Concerns? Eric Sandgren’s Defense of Primate Research Raises More Red Flags

On October 9, 2014, Eric Sandgren, the director of UW Madison’s Resources Center and UW Madison scientist who has a track record of adamantly and publicly rushing to the defense of the University’s controversial research practices (such as the controversial research conducted on cats), participated in a debate concerning the ethics of the upcoming, controversial UW Madison maternal-deprivation research study which will, in the near future, be conducted by Ned Kalin. Kalin and his research team will separate 20 baby rhesus monkeys from their mothers as soon as they are born, keep them in isolation for a few weeks, deprive them of maternal care for the duration of their lives, subject them to anxiety-inducing situations for the entirety of their lives, and after one year, the researchers will kill them in order to “look at the resulting anxiety and stress.” As Sandgren informs us, his intent for the debate is to clear up the “misconceptions” and false characterizations of the study. According to him, “the biggest misconceptions are that this is a torturous horrible thing on the animals and that’s just not true.”

eric sandgren

While Sandgren promised to deliver a discussion that would clarify any confusions and misconceptions, I left this debate having more unanswered questions and concerns than when I walked in.

Before I provide a critical analysis of Sandgren’s presentation, I will give a brief overview of his talk, which began with an overview of the study: the goals, methods, and justification.

The goal of the study is to identify the signaling pathways in the brains of monkeys that underly depression and anxiety. These experiments are, as he puts it, “likely” to identify chemicals and changes in gene function involved in anxiety and depression. After this is identified, new treatments  are expected to be developed (and perhaps better diagnoses will be made).

The method: The research team will use 40 rhesus monkeys; 20 will be part of a “control” group, who will all experience anxiety, but to a lesser degree than the other 20 monkeys. Let us refer to the latter group as group B. The members of Group B will be taken immediately from their mothers at birth, raised in isolation for a few weeks, then subjected to “peer-reering,” a practice which causes, according to Sandgren, “mild to moderate anxiety” in the baby monkeys. These monkeys will then be introduced to a new cage mate, which heightens anxiety again. Furthermore, these monkeys will be exposed to a live snake (Oh, but it’s ok! “the snake is in his OWN cage!”) and “human intruders,” all of which will increase the level of anxiety in these monkeys. The monkeys will then be “euthanized” (when they are approximately one year old) and their brain tissue (from the part of the brain that is said to underly depression and anxiety) will be analyzed.

The ethical justification: IF the experiment does succeed (emphasis… IF), then Sandgren believes that the lives of millions of people will be improved. As he points out, there are 55 million people affected by depression and 12 million of these individuals are severely affected. According to Sandgren, as it currently stands, only 1/3 of these individuals can be effectively treated with the psychiatric drugs available today (and he states that what we currently know about molecular pathways is limited, because past research has only been conducted on rodents, whose brains are not similar enough to human brains). As he points out, Psychiatric Disability is the number one cause of disability worldwide, which makes it a pressing disorder that demands our moral and scientific attention. According to Sandgren, depression amounts for the largest disability within the psychiatric disability category at 10% and anxiety makes up 3% of disabilities.

Sandgren cited utilitarianism as the ethical theory which scientists use to justify their research. This theory states that the goal of morality is to maximize happiness/interests in the world, even when doing so might harm a few individuals. For Sandgren, the answer is obvious: since the research is “likely” to help millions of people suffering from severe and disabling depression and anxiety, we are justified in causing “mild to moderate anxiety” in 20 baby monkeys (and using 20 other monkeys as “controls), and then later killing them because their brains are so similar to humans and dissecting their brains will “likely” provide scientists with helpful intelligence. The ends justify the means.


Points of Concern

Even IF the research is successful, how many people will really be helped?

Keep in mind that Sandgren provided a worldwide statistic on depression and anxiety to motivate his claim that severe depression and anxiety affects a *large* number of people. That is, he made the strategic choice of not just focusing on depression and anxiety in the United States because the number of individuals who are affected in the US is considerably smaller than the number of individuals who are affected worldwide.

Yet, what is important to note is that the World Health Organization reports that  “fewer than half of those affected in the world (in some countries, fewer than 10%) receive such treatments [for depression]. Barriers to effective care include a lack of resources” and a “lack of trained health care providers.” A lack of treatment-access might also have something to do with that fact that the victims of depression are often the unemployed, young people, and people with low incomes, i.e., people who can afford neither the expensive psychiatric medication nor the pricey visits to the psychiatrist’s office. Furthermore, research reveals that the most-depressed regions are Afghanistan, Honduras and Palestine: territories infested with conflict, which leads researchers to conclude that depression is often linked to conflict. These considerations about who suffers from depression leads us to question: even if the primate research provides us with this magical treatment, will those who need it be able to afford it? Will they have access to it? How likely is it that citizens of conflict-ridden nations will have access to this treatment? Why do we find it justified to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into highly speculative research when so many underprivileged humans do not have access to medical treatments that are, right now, available?

This research masks systemic problems

This leads to another, further point: depression seems to be linked to systemic issues and the fact that the government finds it acceptable to throw a bunch of money into research that is “likely” to help develop some magical pill, rather than confront the fundamental, underlying systemic issues of depression speaks to our unwillingness to have an honest discussion about the underlying causes. The fact that women and those with lower incomes (or no incomes at all) are affected by depression at significantly higher rates than employed, white males should indicate to us there is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed: a systemic issue which causes individuals in oppressed group to feel an incredible amount of despair and dissatisfaction with life. Or is the answer to silence marginalized humans by shoving pills down their throat to make them cope with the oppressive, unsatisfying state of their life that is caused by oppressive political and social systems?

How “Utilitarian” are scientists?

The biomedical research and medical industries parade around as if they have an overwhelming concern for human life and well-being. Yet if this is the case, do they know that RIGHT NOW we can DEFINITELY save a life for as little as 50 cents? If scientists really adhered to Utilitarian principles (the idea that the goal of morality is to maximize happiness or interests in the world), then why do they continue to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on research that is “likely” to produce some result, that will help guide another experiment that costs hundreds and thousands of dollars that is “likely” to produce some other result that will guide yet another experiment that costs hundreds and thousands of dollars (etc etc etc)….If we truly care about human life and well-being, we would be effective altruists. We would take the billions of dollars that are currently being poured into speculative, controversial research that is “likely” to produce “some” result and we would use this money in ways that we know will definitely and effectively save lives for as little as 50 cents. For instance, there is an online Charity Evaluator, called Give Well, which is dedicated to informing concerned individuals about humanitarian organizations that have been proven to effectively save lives with each penny that is donated. for instance: the Against Malaria Foundation can prevent malaria for as little as $3 per person by providing mosquito nets to those who are at risk for contracting malaria through mosquito bites; Give Directly is a charity organization that directly feeds those who are starving and living on less than $1 a day; the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative treats children who suffer from infections caused by parasitic worms for as little as 50 cents a year.

It is estimated that Kalin’s research will cost $525,540 (presumably, each “follow-up” study will cost roughly the same amount).How many lives could be saved, right now, if we donated this amount of money directly to one of the organizations listed on Give Well’s website? If scientists really endorsed utilitarianism, they would all be out of jobs because there are so many other effective ways of saving human lives than pouring billions of dollars into pseudoscience.

What about prevention?

Preventative initiatives often go unacknowledged (because they aren’t profitable for scientists), even though they, time and time again, prove to be more effective than pill popping. As the World Health Organization points out, “Prevention programmes have been shown to reduce depression. Effective community approaches to prevent depression include school-based programmes for the prevention of child abuse, or programmes to enhance cognitive, problem-solving and social skills of children and adolescents. Interventions for parents of children with behavioural problems may reduce parental depressive symptoms and improve outcomes for their children. Exercise programmes for the elderly are also effective in depression prevention.”

Is an experiment that is “Likely” to produce helpful results one that we should feel comfortable funding through our tax dollars?

It is astounding to me that, throughout his talk, Sandgren repeatedly stated that Kalin’s research is justified because it is “likely” to identify chemicals and changes in gene function involved with anxiety and depression. I am sorry, that does not tell us anything. As scientists, do they not quantify their statements? How “likely” is this research going to provide the desired results? Furthermore, what Sandgren did not make clear is that the scientists *do not* expect to discover any sort of earth shattering revelation after this one research experiment is conducted. If this research is successful, it is merely a step to getting to the next experiment in the “scientific process.” It is incredibly deceptive that this was not made clear throughout the presentation (I think it snuck in maybe once during the Q&A session) and that Sandgren did not provide any sort of estimate of how many other follow-up experiments would need to be conducted until the researchers find this “groundbreaking” psychiatric development. How many baby monkeys have to be ripped away from their mothers and forced to live a life filled with only suffering, fear, despair, and anxiety before we have any sort of treatment or better method of diagnosing the anxious and depressed? (and how many humans have to suffer and/or die from these treatments in clinical trials?).

An exaggeration of expected benefits?

The question that I asked Sandgren during the Q &A was this: how do scientists figure that they will find a treatment for depression in humans by studying the brain tissue of monkeys who are made to feel anxious and fearful for their whole life? Anxiety and depression are different disorders and it seems counterintuitive to assume that we can make conclusions about depression in adults by studying the brains of young, anxious primates. His response was something along the lines of the following: “the mechanisms and pathways underlying both depression and anxiety are *similar.*” All of this talk of “similarity” should be enough to make anyone skeptical of this research. Of course, the reason why Sandgren and his research warriors want to hold on to their claim that the research will help us find treatments for anxiety and depression is because it makes their cause look more noble. After all, depression is the leading (some research reports that it is the *second* leading) cause of disability worldwide (at 10%), while anxiety is responsible for only 3% of disabilities.

Concluding Thoughts:

In conclusion, Sandgren’s attempted “defense” of the maternal deprivation studies provides us with a concrete example of a common theme we find in the scientific community: in defending their research, scientists all too often exaggerate statistics about “expected benefits,” leave out vital information about the process (e.g. how many of nonhuman animals will actually be used in the long-term) in order to gain public support, and justify their horrifying treatment of animals by appealing to ethical principles that they don’t fully understand or that they don’t adhere to in other aspects of their lives. If it is not enough for you to oppose animal research on the ground that it involves a basic violation of the rights of those animals who are locked in cages for the entirety of their life and treated as mere tools for research, hopefully the dishonesty of scientists will encourage you to question whether we should put blind, unquestioning faith in the scientific community.


1. The use of the term “euthanasia” to refer to the callous murder of these monkeys is inappropriate and misleading. Euthanasia refers to “mercy killings” or “good death”; these monkeys, sorry to say, are not killed due to human mercy. They are killed for scientific profit.
2. At one point, someone asked why scientists don’t study the brains of humans who commit suicide. Sandgren’s response was that tissue disintegrates after death, so we can’t use humans after they are dead. Yet, this response is unsatisfying because Kalin’s research team has stated that they will study the brain tissue of “euthanized,” i.e., *dead* monkeys.
3. As a disclaimer, Sandgren flipped quite swiftly through his slides and I tried to write as much down as possible (while also trying to digest the scientific jargon throughout his talk), so if you have concerns with my analysis, I invite you to e-mail me to clarify your concerns. Once the video from the debate is uploaded, I want to check back on his statistics regarding depression. For instance, it didn’t seem clear to me if the 12 million human beings with “severe” depression are the same ones as those with “disability depression.”