Silver Spring monkeys

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The Silver Spring monkeys were 17 monkeys kept in small wire cages inside the Institute of Behavioral Research in Silver Spring, Maryland, by Dr. Edward Taub, who was researching neuroplasticity with a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Taub had cut sensory ganglia that supplied nerves to the monkeys' fingers, hands, arms, legs, a process called "deafferentation"; with some of the monkeys, he had deafferented the entire spinal column.[1] He then subjected the monkeys to various stimuli to explore how to force them to use the deafferented limbs. The stimuli included persistent electric shock, prolonged physical restraint of an intact arm or leg, and withholding of food.[2] The laboratory was raided by police after a tip-off from animal rights activist Alex Pacheco, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Taub was convicted of six counts of animal cruelty, largely as a result of the monkeys' reported living conditions, making the monkeys "the most famous lab animals in history," according to psychiatrist Norman Doidge, as a result of the controversy that followed Taub's arrest.[3] The case, which lasted ten years, resulted in the first reduction of federal funding for government-supported research; led to the creation of PETA; to the introduction of the Animal Welfare Act of 1985; and became the first animal testing case to be argued before the United States Supreme Court, which rejected PETA's application for custody of the monkeys. They remained, by court order, in the custody of the NIH until they died.

Taub's conviction for cruelty was set aside on appeal. His research on the monkeys led to new discoveries about brain plasticity and the development of constraint-induced movement therapy, which helps people relearn how to move limbs paralysed after strokes, or as a result of cerebral palsy.[4]


In 1982, Pacheco, then a student at the George Washington University, took a summer job in the laboratory. He visited the institute at night and took photographs that, according to the Institute of Laboratory Animal Research journal, showed the monkeys were living in "filthy" conditions. [5] Taub blamed those conditions on Pacheco who, he said, had failed to clean the cages.

Pacheco arranged for scientists and veterinarians to visit the laboratory secretly, and finally he reported the situation to the state police, who raided the laboratory under Maryland's Prevention of Cruelty to Animals law. Taub was convicted of six counts of animal cruelty, later set aside by an appellate court. The prosecuting attorney for the state of Maryland subsequently took an administrative position with PETA. [5]

Taub responded to the allegations by saying he had been set up by PETA, and that his laboratory had been clean when he left on vacation, but Pacheco had failed to clean the cages, had neglected the animals, and had then subjected the laboratory to false reports of cruelty.

Fight for custody

The Louisiana SPCA and the Delta Regional Primate Center "blue ribbon" panel of animal care experts recommended euthanasia of the animals in early 1989 because they were suffering and "in danger of serious life threatening injuries". [6]

A lawsuit, filed by PETA and others, sought to block euthanasia and transfer the animals to a facility under their control, on the grounds that the monkeys could live "safely, humanely, and comfortably if transferred to a suitable facility." The New England Anti-Vivisection Society and PETA ran ads in The New York Times on December 26, 1989, The Washington Post on December 27, and in The Washington Times on January 3, 1990, asking President Reagan to save the Silver Spring monkeys and concerned citizens to petition the White House. [6]

The director of the Tulane Regional Primate Center, where the monkeys were housed after police raided the Maryland facility, told The Washington Post: "They are going to fight very hard for every monkey because the more publicity they get, the more money they bring in." [7]

Final experiments

One of the monkeys was euthanized on January 14, 1990. The court allowed a group of researchers from the NIH to conduct a terminal experiment on the monkey, who had become ill. Under anesthesia, electrodes were placed in his brain and hundreds of recordings taken, revealing what the Laboratory Primate Newsletter called an "unprecented degree of reorganization of the sensory cortex. An 8-10-millimeter wide area that would normally receive input from the hand was found to have completely filled in with input from the face."

Animal rights activists said the results were predictable and of no significance. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said: "Science has become secondary to public relations and politics." [8]

The remaining monkeys were euthanized on July 6, 1990, three days after the lawsuit failed. [9] Researchers were allowed to conduct brain mapping studies on them, under anesthesia prior to euthanasia. They discovered an unpredicted change in thalamus structure apparently caused by progressive nerve degeneration through the dorsal root ganglia (which were severed) and the dorsal columns all the way to the thalamus (a second order synaptic target). [10][11] Taub went on to develop novel techniques for remediation after stroke or brain injury based on work done in these and similar studies. [12]

See also


  1. Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. Viking Penguin 2007, p. 141.
  2. Johnson, David. Review of The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force,
  3. Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. Viking Penguin 2007, p. 136.
  4. Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself. Viking Penguin 2007, p. 134.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lisa Sideris, Charles McCarthy, and David H. Smith. "Bioethics of Laboratory Animal Research. Roots of Concern with Nonhuman Animals in Biomedical Ethics", ILAR Journal V40(1) 1999.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Laboratory Primate Newsletter, Volume 28, Number 2, April 1989
  7. The Washington Post, January, 5 1989, page 7.
  8. Laboratory Primate Newsletter, Volume 29, Number 2, October 1990.
  9. Laboratory Primate Newsletter, Volume 29, Number 4, October 1990.
  10. Jones EG, Pons TP (1998). "Thalamic and brainstem contributions to large-scale plasticity of primate somatosensory cortex". Science. 282 (5391): 1121–5. doi:10.1126/science.282.5391.1121. PMID 9804550.
  11. Merzenich M (1998). "Long-term change of mind". Science. 282 (5391): 1062–3. doi:10.1126/science.282.5391.1062. PMID 9841454.
  12. "Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy", excerpted from "A Rehab Revolution," Stroke Connection Magazine, September/October 2004.