Brain experiments on primates

Between 2006 and 2008 four applications to conduct brain research on primates were denied by the competent authorities in Germany and Switzerland. All three authorities turned down the applications for ethical reasons.

Such studies examine e.g. the connection between the location and the properties of nerve cells in the brains of primates and certain behaviour or reactions. These experiments are pure basic research and neither for the development of drugs nor for the therapy of human diseases of any significance.

The experiments are in all cases similar. Macaques are operated on. A hole is drilled in the skull and a recording chamber is mounted over it and fixed with dental acrylic and screws. Also a head post is screwed to the skull. Often a search coil is implanted into one eye which is used to track the monkey's eye movements.

The monkeys are then »trained« to sit in a primate chair. The head of the animal is tightly fixed to the head post, so the animal can't move its head at all. The animals have to stay like this for hours. Water deprivation is used as »training method«. Outside the experiments the primates don't get any fluid. The animals learn that for good »cooperation« they receive a drop of juice. They are kept so thirsty that they would do anything for a drop of fluid. When they have learned this, they have to perform certain tasks, like following a dot with their eyes on a monitor. Correct work is »rewarded« with a drop of juice. Electrodes are inserted through the chamber and the hole for neuroelectronic recordings. Primates are often used in these experiments for many years.


Alexander Thiele, a German brain researcher currently working in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK, applied to continue his neurological experiments on rhesus monkeys at the Charité hospital in Berlin. The local organization Antivivisectionists Berlin and Brandenburg launched a major campaign against these plans. The majority of the public and media supported the aims of the activists. The Senate, the competent authority in Berlin, refused the application on ethical grounds only. The members of the committee advising the Senate did not even weigh up the suffering of the animals on one side and the possible gain of knowledge on the other side. They regarded the long-term and repeated suffering, especially the constant water deprivation, as so severe, that it could not be justified ethically. The refusal of the senate came into force in March 2007. 


An application for conducting identical experiments at the hospital Großhadern in Munich was denied by the competent authority at the end of 2006. These experiments had been authorized and carried out for many years. The experimenter initially filed an objection, but later withdrew it. The experiments are no longer conducted


Since neuroscientist Andreas Kreiter was appointed to the University of Bremen in 1997, there has been vehement resistance. Thanks to the countless protests of tens of thousands of citizens, politicians reacted. In 2008 the competent authority denied a further extension of Kreiter's permit. The researcher filed an objection against the denial of the authority. A protracted legal dispute is now pending. In the meantime the animals will continue to suffer in Kreiter’s laboratory. more >>

Zurich, Switzerland

In November 2006 the applications for primate experiments at the University of Zurich and the Swiss Technical University Zurich (ETH) were not granted anymore. The reason for the decision of the authorizing authority (Züricher Tierversuchskommission) was the fact that the water deprivation violates the dignity of the animal. The authority used the argument of the animal's dignity for the first time. The animal's dignity is laid down in the amended Swiss Animal Welfare Law which came into force in 2008. A court case followed. In November 2009 the Supreme Court of Switzerland finally ruled that the denial of the permit by the competent authority was correct. A thorough weighing of benefit and costs lead to the conclusion that the suffering of the animal could not be justified by the expected gain of knowledge.

These developments show that experiments on our next of kin are no longer accepted not only by the majority of the society, but also by many scientists, competent authorities and politics.

Similar brain experiments on primates are still carried out at following German universities: Bochum, Bremen, Marburg, Magdeburg and Tübingen.