Brain Candy for Chimps: No, Really

File under, “Hmph.”

No, really, I don’t know what to say, so let us just check in with Pallab Ghosh, for BBC:

My name is Tomas ....A study has shown that anti-depressants can be used to help former lab chimps combat depression and trauma.

Researchers say that the treatment should be considered for hundreds of other chimps that have been used in scientific research.

The finding comes as a US funding body thinks about retiring the more than 300 chimps it uses for medical research.

It really is one of those confusing moments. To the one, the first thought to mind was, “Well, duh!” To the other, though, there also comes that moment when the thought strikes, “Wait, wait, wait. What? Who thought that up?” And the, of course, to a third, comes that bit of grumbling about testing on primates, or testing on animals at all, or whatever.

Some of the answers:

Staff at the AAP sanctuary care for the animals until they die. They try to rehabilitate them so that they can live out their remaining years happily.

The chimps are fed a good diet of vegetables, have toys and plenty of space in which to play. But Dr Kranendonk found that the abnormal behaviour actually increased. It was as if the animals did not know how to cope with their new found freedom.

Dr Kranendonk decided to consult Martin Bruene, a professor of human psychiatric disorders at the University of Bochum, Germany. He prescribed a course of anti-depressants for five of the chimps.

All the animals had been used in medical experiments and were infected with Hepatitis C. “Willy” showed the least abnormal behaviour. “Tomas” and “Zorro”, on the other hand, would spend a third of their waking hours eating their own vomit.

“Iris” had lost so much weight from vomiting when she first came to the sanctuary that the staff thought she would die.

The most troubled though was “Kenny”, a small chimp who was constantly anxious that the others would attack him and spent much of his time screaming in terror.

Okay, then. Antidepressants, it is. Some of these animals had spent as long as twenty years in the labs. And, well, they’re chimps, so we should not be surprised that they display familiar behavior, like huddling in the corner and rocking back and forth, or pacing and pulling out their hair.

Professor Bruene prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), a common class of antidepressant with familiar names like Prozac, Zoloft, and Lexapro. Indeed, according to Ghosh’s report, the chimps showed progress:

After six to eight weeks, the animals behaviour started improving. The abnormal behaviour declined and the chimps began to play together. After seven months, there was a vast difference.

Kenny responded best of all to the treatment. He is now the clown of the group, entertaining the others and initiating play.

Prof Bruene said that the results were “quite amazing”.

He said: “I didn’t expect this to work this well. These chimps have served as laboratory chimps for many, many years and suffered psychological trauma. I wouldn’t expect a human [to recover] that has suffered a similar condition.”

Interestingly, the researchers are now getting answers to another important question: What happens when the chimps come off their meds? The early answer seems to be, Nothing.

Dr. Kranendonk explained, “It seems that while on the medication, the chimps learn to be chimps again. And once they have learned that, they don’t need the medication anymore.”

If only it worked that well in humans. Then again, we’ve never really learned how to be humans in the first place.

The breakthrough is timely, as well, as the National Institutes of Health considers retiring its research chimpanzees and reconsiders its guidelines for using the animals for testing. In January, a Council of Councils Working Group reported to the NIH its recommendations regarding the reduced necessity of chimpanzee research testing, and establishing new criteria to better define the need for such endeavors in the future.


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