David Attenborough accused of being seduced by 'pseudoscience' after criticising 'cruel' animal experiments

Researchers hit back after Sir David signed open letter to The Independent raising concern at the level of suffering involved in many neuroscience experiments on primates

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Sir David Attenborough has been accused of being seduced by “pseudoscience”, as researchers hit back at his demand for an end to the use of certain types of “cruel” brain experiments on primates.

The highly respected naturalist and broadcaster joined leading scientists in signing an open letter to The Independent on Wednesday, saying it was time to stop funding some potentially painful or cruel types of neuroscience experiments on primates.

The letter, organised by Cruelty Free International, (CFI) formerly the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, said there had now been enough progress in human-based alternatives to question the necessity of experiments subjecting primates to fluid deprivation and movement restraint.

Commenting on the letter he had signed, Sir David said: “The recognition that apes, certainly, and to an extent other primates, are so akin to ourselves, and can suffer so much, as we can, has transformed our attitude, or should have transformed our attitude, to using them for our own benefit.

“They are sentient beings that have mental lives comparable to ours, and sensitivities, and pain and deprivation mean things to them, just as they mean things to us.”

Neuroscience researchers, however, have now hit back at his remarks.

The UK Expert Group for Non-Human Primate (NHP) Neuroscience Research criticised the open letter for citing "Non-human primates in neuroscience research: The case against its scientific necessity" - a March 2016 paper written by CFI scientists that appeared in Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments. 

The UK Expert Group said: “We are disappointed to see that David Attenborough and a number of scientists have been misled by the pseudoscience in the paper by CFI, an organisation intent on ending research with all animals, not just primates. 

“They have been deceived by the number of animals used in neuroscience procedures, which are a very small proportion of the numbers stated by CFI, and also by the erroneous claim that NHP neuroscience is useless and that recording from seriously ill patients as they are being monitored for surgery is somehow a replacement for research in non-human animals.”

The group’s statement added: “NHP neuroscience is strictly regulated and ethically assessed, and is only used when there are no alternatives. NHP neuroscience has contributed to many advances in medical science benefiting human patients.”

Other scientists backed the expert group’s criticism, while avoiding mentioning Sir David by name.

Roger Lemon, Professor Emeritus at University College London, who last year won the Fyssen International Prize for his work on neurocognitive mechanisms, insisted: “Non-human primate research contributes fundamental knowledge about how the primate brain functions. 

“It has made, and continues to make, an essential contribution to research leading to the treatment of debilitating movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, as well as to other forms of neurodegenerative disease. 

“To state otherwise, as CFI have done, is ignoring the long history of animal research in the fight against disease.”

Dr John Isaac, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at Wellcome, the charity which offers funding to researchers, insisted that rigorous criteria had to be met before money could be provided for experiments on any type of animal.

He said: “We only fund research involving any type of animal where there is no alternative, and where the benefits, either scientific or directly for human or animal health, outweigh the impact on the animals.”

Dr Isaac added: “Non-human primate research is essential for understanding more about the brain and neurological diseases that affect it, for example Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. This is because certain important aspects of human brain function cannot be replicated by any other means. Non-human primate research is also crucial for testing whether new medicines, including vaccines, are safe and effective.”

The criticism was rejected by Sarah Kite, the director of special projects at Cruelty Free International, who told The Independent:  “Sadly, yet again those defending primate research have chosen to attack other scientists instead of having an informed and intelligent debate about the future of primate research in the UK. This is a hugely controversial area of research with profound ethical and moral concerns, and increasingly scientific concerns, about subjecting non-human primates to such substantial levels of suffering - suffering that can involve invasive brain surgery, water deprivation, physical coercion and physical restraint. 

“No attack on any scientist’s credibility can detract from the profound sense of unease there is among many in the scientific community, let alone the public, in using non-human primates in experiments.     

 “The extensive review of primate research (Non-human Primates in Neuroscience Research: The Case Against its Scientific Necessity) concluded that neuroscience research would be more relevant to and successful for humans should it be conducted with a human focus rather than the continued use of primates. 

“In particular, the review concluded:  neuroscience experiments on monkeys are of only speculative value to humans; data collected from monkeys used in neuroscience research are misleading and of poor relevance to people due to the important differences between primates and humans in brain structure and function; the significance of results from ethical neuroscience research in humans is being underestimated by researchers.” 

Sir David was also backed in his criticism of experiments that deprived primates of water and restricted movement by Dame Jane Goodall, who is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on chimpanzees after spending 55 years studying them in the wild in Tanzania.

She said: “To confine these primate relatives of ours to laboratory cages and subject them to experiments that are often distressing and painful is, in my opinion, morally wrong.

“To restrain their movement and deprive them of water is inhumane and extremely cruel and we have no right to exploit them in this way for any reason.”

Responding to the letter signed by Sir David, a spokesperson for the Medical Research Council, which funds some primate testing, said the licensing process for such experiments was “robust”.

Refusing to respond to the criticism of the UK Expert Group for Non-Human Primate (NHP) Neuroscience Research and others, Sir David told The Independent: “I will just let my letter stand where it is.”

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