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Andrea G.'s picture

Applicability of animal models

While there are certainly a lot of ethical issues with using animals for research, I was hoping we would have spent more of our discussion on whether the animal models scientists have created are actually realistic representations of human behavior.  Certainly, some models are more applicable than others.  Animal models of fear and anxiety, for example (and I may be biased, since I'm using one of them for my thesis), seem to be very straightforward.  Fear, whether conditioned or not, seems to be behaviorally very similar in animals and humans.  More complex sets of behavior, however, don't seem to have what I see as realistic animal models.  Many animal models for depression, for example, seem to map on much more closely to anxiety than to depressive behavior.  Also, how can we model the very important cognitive aspect of depression and other mental states in an animal we can't test with an array of surveys?

Then there's the issue of self report, which we did talk about briefly in class.  The argument was raised that animal models may not be effective models of human behavior because we can't just ask the animals how they feel or whether they've learned to think differently after a given treatment.  To argue a little for the other side of that, I've read some articles that use very clever methodology to get what might very well be self report data from animals that clearly don't have language.  The first, which everyone taking psychopharmacology this semester has already heard about, is drug discrimination.  Essentially, rats are taught to differentially press one of two levers depending on whether they've received saline or the drug being studied.  Then they're given another, similar drug, and tested to see which lever they press.  If they press the lever that had been associated with the original drug, this is interpreted to mean that both drugs give the animal the same internal state.  If they press the saline lever, then their internal state is similar to the one they have when they have no drug in their system.  It's a very effective way to ask a rat what it feels like when it's given a drug.  Similarly themed procedures exist for pigeons, where programs are set up for the animals to make decisions that can be extrapolated to some sort of measure of nonverbal self report.  So maybe, if you're creative enough in designing your experiment, you can really get more information from animals than you might think.

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