The Silver Lining of Silver Spring

Life Begins Anew for 5 ‘Sliver Spring’ Monkeys: Trapped in Animal Rights Case, Macaques Are Focus of Fresh Research at Zoo

I was reading the introduction to The Mind & The Brain – Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force and it mentioned the notorious “Silver Spring Monkey Case.” This case and the preceding controversial research simultaneously established the idea of neuroplasticity (the brain has the capacity to change/adapt/re-organize itself and does not remain in a static state) and animal welfare rights. I find both of these topics extremely interesting and important, and I was not familiar with the case, so I decided to learn more about it. The article I chose is from 1987, but the actual controversial research began in 1981. PETA has a very in-depth page for this specific case because it is basically the foundation for their entire organization. I couldn’t really handle posting that article because it shows some extremely horrible/graphic pictures, but if you want to learn more about this topic, the information isn’t difficult to find. The particular article I chose is from the Los Angeles Times, and gives a background of the original research performed on these macaque monkeys, but focuses on the “re-socialization” effort by the San Diego Zoo on some of the monkeys in the aftermath. The zoo researchers hoped to discover “useful information about managing macaques in captivity and about the role of zoos in managing endangered species… [and] managing male aggression and overcoming it for group living…[and] re-socializing and breeding primates that have lived alone in zoos for years.” That being said, my blog post will mainly focus on the controversial research aspect.

The neuroscientist responsible for the controversial research, Edward Taub, was hoping to make headway for spinal cord injury or stroke victims with his research. His research entailed severing sensory nerves in the monkeys’ neck region, thereby eliminating feeling to a specific limb but keeping nerves and muscles required for movement intact. Through intense research, Taub was able to show that by restraining a monkey’s functional limbs, he could force the monkeys to move the sensory-deprived arm. According to Wikipedia: “During the subsequent dissection of the monkeys, it was discovered that significant cortical remapping had occurred, suggesting that being forced to use limbs with no sensory input had triggered changes in their brains’ organization. This evidence of the brain’s plasticity helped overturn the widely held view that the adult brain cannot reorganize itself in response to its environment. After five years of receiving death threats and being unable to find a research position, Taub was offered a grant by the University of Alabama, where he developed a new form of therapy…known as constraint-induced movement therapy, it has helped stroke survivors regain the use of limbs paralysed for many years, and has been hailed by the American Stroke Association as at the forefront of a revolution.”

Obviously, the treatment of these monkeys was horrific and should have never happened. However, it did reveal some ground-breaking information. This doesn’t make it okay, but people will always be pushing the limits as to what is ethically acceptable. This doesn’t just apply to animals. There are several famous psychology experiments conducted on humans that helped define the boundaries for human experiments. For example, the Stanford Prison Experiment entailed subjecting college students to a jail scenario similar to the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal. There is a lot of information/footage about this experiment if you want to look further into it (even a Ted Talk!). Like I said before, these experiments are extremely unethical, but I’d rather have the world learn something from them, even if it’s only implementing stricter laws or guidelines, rather than dismiss them completely and risk having them happen again in the future. Fortunately, something beneficial to humans resulted from Taub’s research, but that doesn’t mean his techniques for acquiring that information were okay. (If you were wondering, Taub was eventually exonerated by the courts.) Sorry for the long post, but there was a lot to cover!

FYI: Yesterday was World Oceans Day! I hope you did something nice for your Blue Planet!

Wildlife Primate Monkey. Wiki Commons: Alfonsopazphoto

Wildlife Primate Monkey. Wiki Commons: Alfonsopazphoto

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