STEPHEN LISBERGER IS a scientific star. His decades-long research into how the brain registers and responds to visual stimuli is considered groundbreaking. His colleagues are effusive in their praise. William Newsome, a Stanford University neuroscientist who investigates similar terrain, told the Bay Guardian that "it could take decades, or even centuries" to assemble a complete, working map of the brain's essential functions. "And Steve is one of the few people in the world who's making progress on this."
The federal government thinks he's worth a fair chunk of taxpayer change: The National Institutes for Health gave Lisberger $1.6 million in grants this year, and since 1992, an NIH database shows, he's received 31 grants worth a total of more than $12 million.
But Lisberger's work involves fairly invasive experiments on live subjects, and since you can't exactly stick electronic probes into the brains of human beings, Lisberger uses rhesus monkeys, those red-faced staples of biomedical research. His experiments have made him the bane of many critics of animal experimentation â€“ and over the past decade he's become the poster boy for opponents of animal experimentation at UCSF.
Lisberger declined to be interviewed for this story, so we gleaned the outlines of his work from federal documents and UCSF records.
It's not a pretty picture.
According to the scientific protocol for his experiments, filed with UCSF, Lisberger's monkeys undergo several different surgeries, under anesthesia, to prepare them for the research. First, each monkey has a restraint device attached to its head with a combination of metal plates, bolts, and screws. That will later allow the monkey's head to be locked in place for experiments. One or two holes are drilled in the skull, and then cylindrical recording chambers are secured over those holes so that microelectrodes that will allow precise neural activity to be measured can be inserted into the brain with ease. (The electrodes themselves don't cause discomfort because the brain lacks pain receptors.)
Sometimes, small wire coils are sutured to the monkeys' eyeballs. Other times the monkeys have spectacles attached to their faces that either magnify or miniaturize everything they see.
The monkeys in Lisberger's lab are put on a fluid-restriction program, so that each day they are scheduled to "work" they will obey commands for "rewards" of water or Tang. Each monkey is taught to move from its cage to a "primate chair," and once in the chair, its head is locked into the restraining device. Then the animal is prompted to move its eyes in certain ways to receive a reward. Monkeys typically work for two to four hours a day on alternating weeks, often for three years or more.
Lisberger's protocol states that his work could eventually lead to "the cure for many diseases of learning and memory such as Alzheimer's Disease."
Suzanne Roy, from In Defense of Animals, says she started looking into Lisberger's experiments in the late 1990s, after IDA got anonymous complaints from people who said they worked for UCSF. "What struck me was the highly invasive nature of them and the duration of them ... " she said. "He's making the monkeys so thirsty they'll move their eyes in a certain way for a juice reward. How could anyone do this to an intelligent monkey?"