The study of neuroscience is young. There is still much to be discovered surrounding the physiology and biochemistry of the brain and the neural pathways within it.
As an integrative neuroscience major at Binghamton University, I am persistently urged by peers and professors to pursue research to propel the current understandings of the brain. I am also a for-credit undergraduate research assistant in a laboratory at BU, concerned with maternal care and its impacts on alcohol consumption and the stress response. In order to research these phenomena, our research lab uses rats as animal models.
There have been many debates on the ethics of using animals as research subjects. Those against using animal models may argue that animals cannot give consent, research is inhumane because animals can’t understand what is happening to them and animals may be subjected to pain, drug exposure, surgery or other stressors during research. While some of these might be valid arguments, advocates for these arguments are sometimes misinformed. In my opinion, the pros outweigh the cons when considering animals as research models. Understanding neuroscience is imperative to the betterment of humankind, and the data must be collected somehow.
There are ethical issues with obtaining human subjects for drug studies or studies based on stress — offering pay in exchange for participation could attract and inadvertently prey on individuals of low socio-economic status who may be desperate for cash. We cannot ethically use prisoners as research participants. So, where would we obtain human participants? How could we study the effects of addictive drugs on humans, knowing that the substances might potentially ruin lives through drug addiction? How could we use humans to run pharmaceutical trials on drugs with unknown side effects?
The use of human models also introduces further confounds, like placebo effects. Placebo effects are even still present in double-blind studies — the best model available for drug studies in human models, in which neither the participant nor the experimenter know whether a participant is getting a drug that produces an effect or a drug that does nothing. Confounds like this cause the effect of a treatment to be less credible to the experimental treatment, since other variables, and thus alternate explanations, are introduced.
Animal models allow more control over every aspect of the study, significantly reducing confounds in data. For example, experimenters can perfectly control an animal’s diet, sleep patterns, amount of time available to socially interact with other animals and more, all of which are inevitable variables in humans. Because of this, results from animal studies can more reliably be attributed to experimental manipulation than those from human studies.
When I was accepted into my research lab, I had to go through extensive training before I was able to start my work. There are mandated standards to uphold when using animal models. Federal organizations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health, are designated to enforce these laws for all vertebrate animals, with especially strict regulation for nonhuman primates. Each research lab must pass inspections and maintain the utmost humane treatment with its animals. I first went through online training that lasted several hours. The training included literature on humane treatment of animals, hypothetical lab scenarios and text-based evaluations that I had to pass. After the online training, there were tours of the lab, debriefings on how to be humane when handling the animals and observations of my handling by my supervisor. The animals in our lab are in good hands.
Using animal models allows us the opportunity to test hypotheses, make novel observations and push our current knowledge of neuroscience. These findings can be extrapolated to humans. The sacrifices of animals help humans to understand our own brains, paving the way for advancements in the treatments available to humans. If sacrificing 100 rats means saving one human, should the rats be sacrificed? What if thousands of rats are sacrificed in order to develop a drug that saves millions of humans? These are questions that still raise debate, although I feel the answers are clear.
Nicolas Graham is a senior majoring in integrative neuroscience.