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krosania's picture

Perspectives of animal research

I was thinking a lot during our conversation this week about my own previous biases about animal research. This past summer was my first experience using animal models, and before then I had always been convinced that nothing could persuade me to work with animals. The practice always seemed needlessly cruel, and I could never understand why researchers didn’t simply come up with alternatives. And yet, when I was introduced to the animal study I worked on this summer, which examined the plasticity of the auditory and other sensory cortexes in non-hearing animals, it was quite clear that the questions we were asking were incredibly important. It was also clear that there was no alternative means of answering these questions rather than to directly record electrical activity from within the brain of a rat. Somehow, knowing these things turned it all around for me. I spent a good part of the summer surgically implanting four electrodes into the brains of rats, a procedure that is about as intrusive as one can get. And yet I found comfort in the fact that the animals were anesthetized during the procedure and recovered quickly afterwards. This is not to say that I’ve convinced myself these animals were fine, but we had taken every step we could not to needlessly hurt or discomfort the animals. I was also comforted by the thought of the valuable information that would be gathered from these animals. Knowing how the brain restructures itself when one of the senses, in this case hearing, goes unused will have profound effects on the development of treatment options for deaf individuals, and that’s why we do the research that we do.

I think being a part of a research project and being personally invested in finding the answers to our questions makes us excuse the methods that we use, and a lot of the time, forget that anyone has any objections to them. I try to remind myself of this when I think of animal rights activists, who are not close enough to the research to really understand why the use of animals is so valuable. I am not making judgments on either side, and in fact I can’t really say which perspective is correct, if either. We're too close and they are not close enough. I think maybe it is important to take both perspectives into account, and for scientists this means taking a step back and recognizing what our methods look like to the rest of the population. For me, it meant remembering how I felt before participating in animal research. Taking a step back was what our conversation on Tuesday night allowed us to do, and I think it was a really valuable experience for all of us who are working or have worked with animals.


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