One of the most controversial issues in neuroscience is the use of our fellow primates as research subjects. Their similarities to humans in cognitive capacity, social complexity and neuroanatomy make them essential models for understanding the brain—yet these same attributes also single them out for special protection. In recent years European countries have passed increasingly strict regulations for experiments with nonhuman primates, leading many neuroscientists to fear for the future of their research. Switzerland’s highest court may soon set the most rigid precedent yet—a possibility that has the international neuroscience community feeling uneasy.

In 2006 two primate researchers at the Swiss Institute of Neuroinformatics (INI) in Zurich, Daniel Kiper and Kevan Martin, were renewing their licenses through the local veterinary office, as Swiss researchers do every three years. Kiper proposed to look at how the brain changes when an animal learns novel tasks—findings that could eventually help human victims of stroke. His approach called for implanted electrodes and regulated water intake. Martin, head of the INI, wanted to study the circuitry of the macaque neocortex, which carries out higher functions such as spatial reasoning and conscious thought. His research relied on injecting tracer chemicals into the animals and later euthanizing them.

As it had done several times previously, the veterinary office approved their renewals—but this time the process hit a roadblock. An advisory board to the veterinary office, the Committee on Animal Experiments, protested that the studies’ expected benefits to society were not sufficient to justify the burden to the animals. The committee ultimately appealed to the Swiss Health Department, which forced the scientists to cease their experiments.

Meanwhile the application submitted by their INI colleague Hans Scherberger, who uses techniques similar to those of Kiper’s work but studies how the brain controls hand movements, was approved without protest. “There was a difference,” insists Klaus Peter Rippe, an ethicist who is president of the committee. Scherberger’s experiment, he explains, “was developing neural prostheses, which have a very clear application to human welfare. The applications of Kiper’s and Martin’s experiments were not concrete and would take a long time to benefit society.”

Kiper and Martin agree that their research does not have immediate practical value but note that it seeks an improved understanding of the brain—a foundation, they say, that is essential for tackling clinical conditions such as Alz­heimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Critics “think such basic research is not as important as applied research,” Martin says. “But everyone who understands the scientific process knows that you can’t distinguish the two. Look at stem cells, gene therapy, deep brain stimulation—they couldn’t say when society would see the benefits or what those benefits would be.”

Kiper and Martin appealed to the Zurich administrative court, but in a surprising ruling handed down on March 27, the court upheld the original protest, citing in part the macaque’s evolutionary proximity to humans and its cognitive abilities. Long-term objectives and uncertain applications are unacceptable, the court ruled.

To many scientists, the ruling implies that research with primates must produce benefits to society within the three-year licensing period—a de facto ban on basic research. “It’s antiscientific,” Kiper declares. “This reflects a lack of trust in scientists and a lack of respect for scientific progress in general.” The University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, which together established the INI, are now appealing to the Federal Supreme Court, the country’s highest judicial body.

The case is in keeping with the recent European trend of increasingly stringent regulations for animal research; most notably, a September 2007 petition in the European Parliament to end all nonhuman primate experiments gained support from more than half of its members. Although the European Commission denied the petition, the level of political support has alarmed scientists, who fear that upcoming revisions to guidelines could seriously hamper their research.

Even in the U.S., where the political climate for primate research is more permissive, investigators feel an intensifying strain. “Doing primate work just gets tougher and tougher,” says Bill New­some, who studies the visual system at Stanford University. Newsome worries about the “constantly increasing regulatory scrutiny and general anxiety about being on the front line against unscrupulous animal-rights activists.”

Newsome and others fear that animal-rights activists may seize on the Swiss ruling. “They network very effectively,” says Klaus-Peter Hoffmann, a neuroscientist at the Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, whose home has been the target of British protestors. “They see what happens in one country, and if it works, they will use the same tactics elsewhere.”

While the Swiss federal court considers the ruling and leaves Kiper’s and Martin’s projects struggling, both scientists express the greatest concern for the Swiss research agenda. “We built up a critical mass of talented primate researchers,” Martin says. “But now that whole future is at risk. People are going to leave, and I can’t recruit any more—why would anyone want to come and build their futures here? It’s a catastrophe.”

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Primate Motions".