Some of the most virulent animal rights protests have been against researchers using monkeys to find ways to help ameliorate the most difficult medical conditions we face. Here’s a huge example. Using monkeys enabled researchers to learn how to surgically implant electrodes into the brains of paralyzed people allowing them to control robotic prostheses with their minds. From a May 2008 Nature News report:
Researchers in the United States have created a brain implant that allows monkeys to feed themselves using a robotic arm just by thinking about it. The device could one day help paralysed people to operate prosthetic limbs that might enable them to eat, drink or use other utensils for themselves.
Today, an AP story illustrates how that work with monkeys has paid off in humans. From the story:
Giving a high-five. Rubbing his girlfriend’s hand. Such ordinary acts – but a milestone for a paralyzed man. True, a robotic arm parked next to his wheelchair did the touching, painstakingly, palm to palm. But Tim Hemmes made that arm move just by thinking about it. Emotions surged. For the first time in the seven years since a motorcycle accident left him a quadriplegic, Hemmes was reaching out to someone – even if it was only temporary, part of a monthlong science experiment at the University of Pittsburgh. “It wasn’t my arm but it was my brain, my thoughts. I was moving something,” Hemmes says. “I don’t have one single word to give you what I felt at that moment. That word doesn’t exist.”
The Pennsylvania man is among the pioneers in an ambitious quest for thought-controlled prosthetics to give the paralyzed more independence – the ability to feed themselves, turn a doorknob, hug a loved one.
This is great news. But make no mistake: Scientists needed the monkeys to learn how to do it safely–which no doubt led to some of the animals’ deaths–before they graduated, as they are now doing, to people. To put it bluntly, that is not only acceptable based on animal welfare principles, but I think ethically required, because the lives and well being of humans matter more than those of the animals, and the human benefit here is very high. (The same AW approach led me to oppose irradiating monkeys in long-term space travel research because the human benefit is both speculative and very distant.) Do away with animal research and you do away with great stories such as this.