Monkey research ban puts Zurich institute’s future in doubt

by Malcolm Curtis Swisster.ch | October 14, 2009 | 08:30

An expat British scientist who helped found a world-renowned brain research centre in Zurich is questioning the facility’s future after Switzerland’s top court refused to allow experiments on monkeys there to continue.

The Lausanne-based supreme court this week upheld a lower court ruling against the Institute of Neuroinformatics (NI), run jointly by the federal institute for technology (ETH) and the University of Zurich.

“It’s an incredible blow,” Kevan Martin, deputy head of the institute, told Swisster in a telephone interview.

Research on the monkeys was aimed at answering questions about degenerative brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, among other unresolved mysteries.

The federal tribunal issued its decision on Tuesday, siding with a Zurich cantonal court in prohibiting experiments by NI scientists on rhesus monkeys.

Martin,  a British expat scientist originally from South Africa, said the use of monkeys was crucial to his ongoing research into the cortex, the part of the human brain that makes decisions.

The research, and other experiments on monkeys done by a fellow institute scientist, Daniel Kiper, was approved  by the canton of Zurich’s veterinary office, and had been conducted for several years.

But in 2007 the cantonal commission for the protection of animals objected to the experiments, citing concerns about cruelty to the monkeys.

Martin disputed the concerns noting that the research was conducted by the institute “was peer-reviewed by international scientists and was funded at the highest level by the Swiss national fund.”

He said the federal tribunal did not take a position on the procedures used for the animal experiments.

“It did not look at the science at all,” he said. “It was simply looking at whether the legal procedure (in banning the experiments) was followed.”

Martin maintains a change in the membership of the animal protection commission – and the influence of animal rights groups – led to the ban.

The institute was established in 1995 by ETH and the university to study how the brain works and to implement findings for the development of artificial intelligence systems.

Scientists were using monkeys to investigate the workings of the pre-frontal cortex and changes in the plasticity of the brain as the animals mature.

“Of course we’re disappointed, there’s no doubt about it,” Roman Klinger, a spokesman for ETH told Swisster.

“Both universities are disappointed by the decision of not honoring the appeal of our case.”

But Klinger hastened to add that “we don’t want to say too much before we know the reasons behind this decision.”

The IN research at was initially approved in 2006 by the canton of Zurich’s veterinary office but was later challenged by a commission for the protection of animals.

The commission was concerned that the monkeys suffered pain from the research, violating the dignity of the animals a factor that outweighed the benefits of the scientific research, which it found hard to quantify.

Martin said he was conducting experiments on rhesus monkeys to learn about the “micro-circuitry” of their brains.

His goal was to answer fundamental questions about the brain, including how the pre-frontal cortex reacts with the system of dopamine, a naturally produced chemical that sends messages from the brain to other parts of the body.

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About Malcolm Curtis

Freelance English-language communications professional (writing, editing, translations) based near Geneva, Switzerland. Let me know if I can help you.
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