Using Animals for Neuroscience Research
It’s a very touchy subject for some people, and as it was reported last week that the number of animal experiments being carried out has increased this year, I decided I would try to discuss some of the reasons behind using animals in research.
I’m not an expert in animal research, but I have had some experience of carrying out some animal experiments, have worked in the animal labs and work in a department that is actively engaged in using animal models of disease. So, unsurprisingly, I am not against the use of animals in scientific research (cosmetic and household testing is a completely different matter that I won’t be getting into here). However, I recognise, accept and agree that it is an uncomfortable idea. Pair that discomfort with the apparent secrecy surrounding many scientific research labs, and it’s easy to see why animal research, and the people who conduct it, are treated with suspicion.
If they are hiding something, then there must be something awful to hide, right?
From my experience, and from knowing the people who work with animals in research, this is really quite far from the truth. The animals most commonly used in research are, as everyone knows, rats and mice. This is because they are relatively small mammals that are capable of learning, and have some similarities to human biology. The animals in the labs are cared for round the clock by qualified technicians, many of whom used to be veterinary nurses, and a vet is always on call and makes regular visits. On top of this, the use of animals in the UK is under the strictest regulations in the world to ensure the highest level of animal welfare, and regular visits by inspectors ensure that this is the case.
But, while the animals are very well cared for, they are ultimately used for research purposes, and that’s the uncomfortable bit. Within neuroscience research, this may include deliberate injuries to the brain (carried out under strict and sterile surgical conditions), treatment with new or experimental drugs, or may consist purely of ‘behavioural tests’ – where the animal learns associations between signals and a reward (think Pavlov and his dogs) or where to go in a maze to get some food. In addition, the majority of mice used in research have been altered or bred to have a particular genetic mutation that mimics the mutations found in human diseases. This creates an ‘animal model’ of a disease, so that how a disease progresses over time can be investigated, or new experimental treatments for symptoms can be tested.
Without prior knowledge of the importance and usefulness of these experiments, or the details of how the animals are treated and cared for during the process, it’s easy to think that this is simply cruelty, carried out by evil scientists who are merely satisfying their curiosity.
This opinion may arise from a lack of information, and details from outdated studies. Before writing this post, I took a look on some popular anti-vivisectionist (anti-animal testing) websites to see the other side of the argument. While much of the information given on the websites was incorrect and outdated (particularly with regards to housing conditions, and on one webpage, all the references were at least 14 years old), there is one important argument that I wanted to address.
The most common argument is that it is pointless to use animals because they do not reflect the human condition, so anything that is carried out in mice is unlikely to work in humans and is a waste of time.
Well, there are two sides to this argument.
Yes, obviously humans are different to rats and mice. Their brains are different, and many drugs that have shown promising results in animals have failed in human clinical testing. But not all drugs have. Animal models have allowed us to uncover an abundance of essential information about many neurological diseases that couldn’t be identified in humans, and has pushed forwards our understanding of disease and improved research in the process. They are an essential part of investigating the effects of genetic manipulations, as well as the basic biology of disease and are a starting point for developing future life-saving treatments.
But, that being said, I don’t think there is a single scientist who would say that animal models are perfect.
So why do we have to use animals?
Well, a big reason is the lack of an alternative that can provide us with as much information. While it is being argued that human cell models, including the development of stem cells, are more relevant to medical research (they are human after all), the problem, particularly with the brain and in neuroscience, is one of connectivity. The brain is made up of many different cell types, all of which are responsible for different functions. But they are all connected and they communicate with each other, which means that they can affect and alter each other. This complexity has not been replicated in a petri dish with cells, but it is present in an animal brain. Something that may work in one cell model won’t necessarily work in a different cell model, never mind in a full working brain – whether it is human or not. Even if we could eventually one day grow an entire functioning brain just from cells in the lab, then would it have consciousness? And if was a conscious human brain, then experimenting on it becomes ethically questionable (at the very least!).
Cells also can’t tell us the behaviour that may result from an experiment – for example, a drug to improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease may have the expected biochemical effects in a cell model, but does it actually improve memory? And are there any side effects? Another drug predicted to treat Parkinson’s disease may not change the cell as anticipated, but would it still give back some movement control?
The usefulness of animal models is frequently discussed within the scientific community, and the general consensus tends to be that although they are not the perfect solution, animal models need to remain an integral part of scientific research until appropriate and accurate alternatives can be developed. Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet. In the meantime, improved communication between scientists and the public may ease some of the tension and suspicion about what goes on in animal labs, and the fear of being targeted or attacked for working in animal research. It may or may not change any minds, but both sides will at least be better informed.
What are your views on scientific animal research? Is there anything you wish you knew more about? I’d love to hear your comments!