No, Monkeys Don’t “Volunteer” to Have Their Brains Probed

This study involved two monkeys that learned to play a computer game that gave them drops of juice when they won. The monkeys played voluntarily because they liked to gamble...

This line, from a September NPR story, would give listeners an impression of monkeys happily playing computer games. That same month, a Washington Post story stated that the researcher—Veit Stuphorn of Johns Hopkins University—simply places the monkeys in front of a computer screen to make choices and gamble for fluid rewards, then tracks their eye movements with sensors. “The monkey used his eyes to make the choice,” Stuphorn told the Post.

That last part is at least partially true, since the monkeys could essentially move only their eyes. Why? Because Stuphorn—for decades now—has forced monkeys into primate chairs, restrained their heads, and surgically affixed a chamber to their skulls so that electrodes can be inserted into their brains for NIH-funded research on decision making, executive choice, and gambling. He has positively cited “years of experience with the water restriction method” to help train the monkeys.

In the September 2018 paper that prompted the stories, Stuphorn conspicuously fails to mention the chairing of the monkeys or their heads being restrained. Indeed, the only hint in the paper of his extreme restraint is the phrase “ear bar” mentioned in a figure of a monkey’s brain. (See photo above.) An ear bar is a metal rod on a stereotaxic device inserted into the animal’s ears to immobilize the head for insertion of electrodes. In at least five papers spanning the last eight years, Stuphorn has claimed that these monkeys—helpless, restrained, electrodes piercing their brains—are “free to choose” what their eyes will follow.

Stuphorn also claims in the September 2018 paper that the two monkeys, “A” and “I” (identified in the Post as Aragorn and Isildur) had “not participated in any other study.” Yet a 2015 paper not only identified monkeys “A” and “I,” but also cited the same exact weights as in the most recent paper. Again, Stuphorn failed to mention the extreme head and body restraint.

To make matters worse, of the 96 pages comprising a PDF printout of the 2015 paper (excluding references), 32 contain peer reviewer questions to Stuphorn, with multiple back-and-forth questions and answers. Yet, there is no comment anywhere in those 32 pages about Stuphorn’s failure to mention the head and body restraint.

This failure is not just about public relations; it is a serious breach of scientific publication guidelines. There is a reason that papers have Materials and Methods sections. And with multiple studies, Stuphorn has failed to comply with this basic guideline of providing such information.

The Post reported incorrectly that Stuphorn began working with monkeys about a decade ago, and Aragorn was his first. In fact, Stuphorn has been conducting invasive brain experiments on monkeys since at least 1999. In a 2010 NIH-funded study, he had three monkeys he used in prior experiments killed so he could remove and section their brains.

Gambling is a human addiction. The $4.4 million NIH has spent to date on Stuphorn’s highly invasive and ethically questionable research would be far better used for human-centered research and treatment.