Self-injurious behavior in rhesus monkeys: New insights into its etiology, physiology, and treatment



Self-injurious behavior (SIB) is a significant human health problem frequently associated with profound intellectual disabilities, genetic diseases, and psychiatric conditions. However, it also occurs in subclinical populations and appears to be on the rise in adolescents and young adults. SIB is also seen in a small percentage of nonhuman primates that injure themselves through biting. We have begun to characterize SIB in rhesus monkeys to identify some of the risk factors associated with this disorder, and to determine the parallels with the human condition. In our study population, 14% of individually housed monkeys (the vast majority of which are males) have a veterinary record for self-inflicted wounding. Wounding is rare, but self-directed biting is common. SIB can be elicited during aggressive altercations and may be associated with husbandry events. Some monkeys appear to be more vulnerable to acquiring SIB. This increased vulnerability is associated with certain social experiences in the first 2 years of life and with exposure to a larger number of moderately stressful events as compared to controls. Monkeys with SIB also have a dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, indicated by a blunted cortisol response to mild stressors. Our findings suggest that SIB may be a coping strategy to reduce arousal. Biting appears to rapidly lower an escalating heart rate. The potentially reinforcing effects of SIB may account for the failure of some treatment regimens. These findings are compared to studies of SIB in humans, and concordances are identified. Am. J. Primatol. 59:3–19, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.