Chimps Used in Experiments Develop Psychological Disorders

June 11, 2008

Chimpanzees are humankind’s closest relatives. They share much of our DNA and, like us, have complex social relationships and suffer physical and mental pain. Scientists working with Arcus grantee, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recently confirmed that many chimps formerly used in experimental research display behaviors very similar to the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder commonly seen in traumatized humans.

PCRM’s director of research policy, Hope Ferdowsian, M.D., M.P.H., and colleagues conducted an observational study involving more than 100 chimpanzees previously held in experimental laboratories who now reside at a sanctuary in the United States. Many chimps displayed symptoms that overlap with psychiatric disorders, such as repetitive and ritualistic acts, social withdrawal, lack of interest, irritability, agitation, increased arousal and avoidance. The study results were presented at the International Primatological Society in Scotland in August 2009.

Dr. Ferdowsian was inspired to conduct this study by her work with human torture survivors.

She found significant similarities in the ways that humans and nonhuman animals respond to trauma. Like humans, other animals are capable of experiencing tremendous emotional and mental anguish in addition to physical pain. Dr. Ferdowsian notes that many people have rationalized the use of animals in experimental research by citing their similarities to humans. “However,” she adds, “it is precisely the common potential for mental and physical suffering that makes it an ethical dilemma.”

“No one doubts that confining and experimenting on unconsenting humans is wrong,” Dr. Ferdowsian says. “But humans are not alone in their capacity to feel terror and helplessness and to carry the consequences of abuse with them for many years.”

The study served as an introduction for Dr. Ferdowsian to her new role as director of research policy for PCRM. As director, she leads PCRM’s scientific and policy efforts promoting alternatives to animal experimentation and the allevia- tion of suffering.

Dr. Ferdowsian also will continue as associate director for the Washington Center for Clinical Research, which conducts clinical research focusing on the role of diet in health promotion and disease prevention and management.