Harvard scientist slammed for sewing baby monkeys' eyes shut for visual impairment experiments

According to Harvard University neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone, the experiment 'helped save millions of children from vision loss'

Harvard scientist slammed for sewing baby monkeys' eyes shut for visual impairment experiments
A representational image of a monkey (Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)
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Warning: This article contains graphic content and footage about abuse that could be traumatic for some readers. Discretion is advised

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS: A Harvard neurologist has been slammed for research that involves separating infant monkeys from their mothers and sewing their eyelids shut in order to examine visual impairments. The research, carried out in 2016 and 2020, was a component of Margaret Livingstone's work, which, in her words, "helped save millions of children from vision loss" by building on Nobel Prize-winning science.

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Scientists, animal rights activists, and the general public are denouncing the techniques as "unethical and cruel" and requesting that Harvard University's lab be shut down and that Livingstone's papers be taken down from reputable journals. When contacted by DailyMail.com about the situation. Livingstone declined to comment, however, she shared a public statement in which she condemned the attacks, stating that her lab had "not performed eyelid closures since the two isolated cases in 2016" and that the procedure "remains routine protocol across research labs that study vision disorders."

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More than 250 animal behavior researchers, graduate students, and postdocs signed a letter to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) requesting that Livingstone's most recent publication, titled "Triggers for mother love," be retracted. The letter was sent by University of St Andrews primatologist Catherine Hobaiter, who told Science.org that she is horrified by the methods. However, this technique required removing baby monkeys from their mothers right after birth and sewing shut their eyes for a year.

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Letters were addressed to Harvard and two NIH organizations by Katherine Roe, a former experimental psychologist who researched child brain development and is currently the head of science advancement and outreach at PETA. "Any potential benefits to human or animal health outweigh the harm being done to the animals," according to Roe. The letter describes Livingstone's techniques, which include operating on babies "so that head posts can be affixed to their skulls or eye coils3 and/or multiple intracranial electrode arrays can be implanted."

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"For multiple experiments, their heads are immobilized using helmets, chin straps, and bite bars, and in some experiments, the monkeys are killed and dissected."

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In Livingstone’s statement, however, she notes that in 2016 they "performed two reversible eyelid-closure procedures in macaques using dissolvable sutures, as described in the peer-reviewed literature. This procedure is also performed in human children and infants with certain eye tumors or to treat invasive eye infections." The statement continued, "Pediatric surgeons give these children anesthesia and pain-relief medications. We did the same with our infant macaques to ensure they do not experience pain."

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Additionally, she mentions how the 2016 research builds on Nobel Prize-winning research that "has been described as a quantum leap in our understanding of how the brain sees." Livingstone’s 2019 study ‘Body map proto-organization in newborn macaques’ reads: "Two of the hand-reared monkeys (M5 and M6) were raised under conditions of visual form deprivation via eyelid suturing for the first year. Experiments were conducted in these 2 monkeys after eyelid reopening." Several Twitter users have called for the closure of Livingstone's lab at Harvard in response to this study and the 2020 report.

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