As some of the world�s last laboratory chimpanzees retire to sanctuaries,
a specialist in evolutionary psychiatry suggests treatment for our captive
As our closest relatives, chimpanzees have played a role in science for
nearly 80 years. Because they can contract infections such as HIV and
hepatitis, they have proved valuable for biomedical research. This research
has revealed another trait, however, that chimpanzees share with humans:
vulnerability to psychological damage. Concerned by mounting evidence of
lasting trauma in great apes, the European Union banned their use in
research in 2010. And in January 2013, a National Institutes of Health
report recommended that all but 50 of the nearly 700 chimps in NIH-supported
labs be retired to sanctuaries. In 2010 the Scientific American Board of
Editors published an editorial calling for a
ban on the use of apes in invasive biomedical research.
Br�ne has seen this damage firsthand. A psychiatrist at the University
Hospital in Bochum, Germany, Br�ne specializes in detecting early signs of
psychosis in humans. His interest also extends to psychological similarities
among chimps and humans. His research took an unusual turn seven years ago
when a primatologist in Austria asked him to observe a group of veteran
laboratory chimps. Br�ne noticed behaviors among them akin to
depression, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic
disorder, although he and his colleagues still wrestle with whether to apply
these clinical terms to nonhumans. Three years later, he decided to begin
working with a group of 10 former research chimpanzees in a sanctuary called
AAP in the Netherlands, led by biologist Godelieve Kranendonk. The
chimps received antidepressants as part of their treatment regimen.
shared early results of this treatment at the annual meeting of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Boston in
February. Afterward, Scientific American caught up with him to hear about
his work with his extraordinary patients.
What was your impression when you first saw the chimps in the
Even as a non-primatologist, I immediately could
recognize that their behaviors were really grossly abnormal. Some of the
engaged in self-mutilating behaviors such as scratching wounds and keeping
them open, and others showed stereotypic movements like constant body
rocking. Others smeared their feces everywhere and engaged in coprophagy
[eating their feces]. Such behaviors have never been observed in wild
populations, so we can be quite sure to assume that these are abnormal
Where had those chimps been before?
Most of the chimps were at a facility for biomedical research in the
Netherlands, and many of them are infected with HIV and hepatitis virus. You
can retire them in the sanctuary, but you cannot integrate them in other
groups, because of the infections.
Did you approach the apes
as a psychiatrist in the same way you would humans?
I wouldn�t say that. They are behind a fence, and it�s dangerous to come too
close. You can�t predict their behavior. Still, I think when you look into
their eyes, there is something coming back. I had the impression that they
have a personality, and there was something behind their look.
Can you trace certain behaviors to certain conditions in the lab?
There are a couple of more common causes of the behavioral
abnormalities, such as social deprivation, stressful experiences like
regular darting to anesthetize the animals, and so forth. For some of them,
there is probably early separation from mothers and peers. But it�s very
hard to tell, because the individual history of many animals is not known in
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