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Animal models and alternatives?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the 2008 senior seminar in Neural and Behavioral Sciences at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them.

Thoughts this week about


and our conversation based on them ....
atuttle's picture

On the Issue of Expendability


The discussion over animal rights versus animal research is an interesting and relevant topic given our shared experiences over the last four years in biology and psychology lab settings. In my first forum post (week 1) I gave a list of reasons why I believe animal research is beneficial; while many of these issues have been readdressed in this forum, I encourage anyone who is interested to also look back at my first post. Picking up on the issue of animal expendability or “sacrifice” for science, it is important to realize the importance of language in talking about animal use. Throughout our history we have used animals to further our own survival. Even today we continue to rely on animals for a variety of purposes, including food, clothing, fuel, fertilizer, friendship. As a result of the myriad of roles we as humankind play in association with the animals we raise, it is no surprise that we have developed corresponding feelings for these creatures. For example, we tend to anthropomorphize objects (both living and non-living) in our environment. As a member of a generation who grew up on Disney movies, I believed for much of my early childhood that animals could walk, talk, and figure out how to free a Princess from a tower. Similarly, people’s behaviors are often depicted in animal terms: “mean as a snake,” “sick as a dog,” “courage of a lion,” etc. Euphemisms are also employed in both animal food production as well as science. We refer to animal death in the lab as “sac’ing” an animal. When I order cow on a menu, it has a pretty name like “London broil.”

Based on the study of animal behavior, however, there is no doubt that animals can feel pain, nervousness, fright, etc. This is the reason why they are used in the first place for behavioral research. But people who become enraged that animals are being wastefully “sacrificed” for science often fail to account for the animals that are used to enhance their own lives. I would argue that the use of animals to better human life justifies animal research. Furthermore, I view animal research as a step that stems from our long and intimate relationships with other animal species.

Finally, while we should uphold the animal statutes in place to protect against needless animal suffering or unnecessary waste, I believe that on the issues of knock-out mice or longitudinal pain studies the discomfort of animal subjects is justified. These subjects may feel pain, but the greater good for both veterinary and human science outweigh this discomfort. Furthermore, while animal models have been engineered so that they are not be able to survive in the natural environment, the overall quality of life for lab animals appears to be better than similar organisms in the wild (reflected in average lifespan, body weight, etc.) Resources are scarce in the wild, and predation is a persistent concern. If an animal is afforded with safety, companionship, and unlimited food, does this justify the “sacrifice” they will give for science?


~Alex Tuttle

Haverford '08's picture

Human research...

A topic that I feel wasn't addressed enough in class or even in the forums is the potential impact of human research on the scientific community. It is interesting that we would still subject animals to what we ourselves would never undergo, or at least would never admit to allowing another human to undergo. But by do we believe that we are better than any other animals on this planet? I would agree with Paul Neuman's sentiments last week that the only thing keeping us from using human subjects in place of animals is that we are ourselves human and see too much likeness between the researchers and the subjects. After all, we know that it can and has been done, when the subjects were dehumanised by those who wished to do research.

Besides, we are already participating in human subject medical trials, as was brought up in class. Can we really deny an new drug that seems to cure cancer, just because we don't have decades of research on it to look for potential side effects?

Unfortuantely, as good as animal models are, and as willing as we are to value a human life over that of a lab rat, like is the best model for like. It can take into account any and all abnormalities and differences in the human brain and body, something a mouse or rat could never do.

Another interesting point that was brought up in earlier discussion is relevancy. Should research only be performed when it is absolutely necessary? How do we define what is necessary, and who gets to define that? Most of the medical and scientific knowledge that we have now was garnered in some way from animal research, but looking at exactly how it came about would turn our delicate stomachs today. Was it necessary then? Maybe, but probably not. Is it useful now? Without it, we would be as clueless now as we were in the middle ages. Just a thought.

K. Smythe's picture

Animal models

            The use of lab animals is always something I personally think a lot about.  I’m not sure how I feel about sacrificing animals so carelessly.  On one hand, furthering research is important and could save many, many, human lives later on, but I guess my concern is with the way we treat lab animals as disposable resources.  I don’t think that I feel any better that some organisms are bred expressly for the purpose of research.  In the end often the lives of these animals are simply very expendable to us.  I do believe that sometimes sacrificing animals toward science is appropriate, however it is worrisome that we don’t have any means of monitoring the number of animals that are sacrificed, or what they are sacrificed for.

            I also don’t know how I feel about simply moving our research down the evolutionary line.  People seem to be more comfortable with research done on animals that are less “human-like”.  I’m not sure that I see it as any more or less appropriate to sacrifice animals based on their likeness to humans.  Either way it is still a life of an organism that we can only subjectively think about-we don’t actually know what (or if) these animals feel, experience or think.  For this reason I’m not sure that I’m more comfortable with sacrificing fish over cats for example.

            On an entirely different note, the idea of a code of ethics or integrity for scientists is a very interesting concept.  It’s interesting that this is something I’ve never thought about/has never been brought up before to me.  It seems important that since we are working with lives and although not directly with human lives for research, our research will eventually affect human lives, maybe more directly than we think in terms of drug research.  For a lot of reasons a code of conduct seems like a good idea, however I would have no idea who would draft it or how to begin drafting one myself.  I think it would be important to have “lay people” on whatever committee was creating such a document because often scientists become jaded, or forgetful regarding the lives of animals in research.  Because of the frequency with which research is completed using animal models it is easy to forget that one is indeed killing a living, breathing, arguably thinking and feeling organism. 

ehinchcl's picture

a lot to talk about...

There is such a wide variety of topics/thoughts to respond to above, that I wanted to pick just a few to touch on that I found most interesting.

First, i wanted to respond to some of the questions posed to those of us who work with animals for our senior research. For context, I work in an Immunology lab that uses mice (we use primary thymocytes for our experiments). On average I would say I use about 2 mice per experiment, though sometimes lysates can be used for multiple blots. This works out to be actually a lot of animals when all is said and done. (Side note: one interesting thing that I thought about when we were doing this is the idea of maturity of the animal-- I dont have as much of a moral issue with using frog embryos but do have to carefully consider my use of grown (young) mice.)

A question posed was: Given your research project, have you honestly as a researcher considered an alternate model? And the answer is yes, I have tried experiments using a non-primary cell type (DO11.10 for those who may be interested). Unfortunately, as is often the case, these cells are just not able to tell us as much as the primary cells can... they don't stain for IMF as well, they dont always react in the same ways that primary thymocytes do, etc. Its frusterating because to have a cell model would be great; it would really relieve the pressure to make sure that everything works, not just for experiments sake but for the sake of sparing more mice.

Another question was: Did you think about the limits of your model before this conversation? I have to admit that yes, this has come up a bit. Ian brought up the environment, and i have to say I hadn't really ever thought about the actual lab setting having an effect. I guess its slightly different for immunology-- to some extent I would almost hypothesize that a lab mouse would be a better model than a wild one simply because our society has become so "germ-free" recently and therefore more lab like for humans. (a stretch I know, but something I hadn't considered). As for other limits, I think whats really important here is not hte limits of our model but how much it can tell us... if we are still learning things about the model-- whether exactly applicable to humans or not-- it means we are still learning things about the system in general. and for me, learning makes it worth it. even if what I learn about murine thymocytes doesn't exactly correlate to humans i think its still valuable because then it gives an interesting comparison-- we could learn all sorts of things about evolution, system interactions in organisms, etc etc.

Another thing of interest that no one has brought up but that I think is really relevant here is the whole idea of knockouts. These are animals that we genetically engineer... often so that they are sick. I often think about this and am pretty conflicted-- I think knockout mice can tell us SO much and have been invaluable for their research contributions. however, isn't this a form of cruelty like we've been talking about? yes these mice may be housed and fed but we are intentionally causing them all sorts of harm in the form of severe illness and function. That doesn't exactly seem like something anyone (anything?) would give their informed consent to... I don't really have an answer. I feel like I couldn't give up knockouts, because they are so useful, but I really don't think that they fit under the "treat animals as best we can" idea. I'd love to hear what others have to say...

Ian Morton's picture

While I have a fair bit to

While I have a fair bit to comment on the morality concern of animal research, I am going to postpone these comments, as Rebecca and I plan to do our presentation on morality and social cognition. The one point I will make is that I found it interesting that in class we were largely concerned with “where to draw the line” and with offering justifications for what qualifies moral animal testing (e.g. rats wouldn’t survive in the wild anyway). This seems to suggest that moral judgment is not nearly as rational a process as we tend to believe or assume. While we are tempted to offer justifications that supposedly gave rise to our moral judgments in a rational process of deliberation, perhaps these justifications are merely a post hoc attempt to explain the moral judgments that we’ve already reached unconsciously. This is a point that Rebecca and I will likely expand upon.

Beyond the moral concerns, I would like to contribute my own understanding of the values and concerns of using animal models for social cognitive research. There are numerous observations that suggest the environment, including the social environment, can change brain physiology (neuroplasticity). Changes in brain organization will consequently result in changes in both cognition and behavior. It is important that this interaction between brain and environment be considered in planning methodology. For example, laboratory settings such as testing conditions create foreign environments for lab animals. Such foreign environments can in turn induce stress, producing physiological changes (e.g. endocrinological changes), which in turn can produce behaviors that don’t reflect real-world social behavior. Additionally, there are observations to suggest that living environment can have profound effects on rodent brain structures, which consequently can alter their behavior.

With the relationship between brain and environment in mind, it is important that researchers account for how the experimental environment and animal living conditions could be effecting observations. I am not attempting to suggest that animal models not be used for studying social cognition, but am rather trying to highlight an additional concern to consider when discussing the value of using animal models.
Elliot Rabinowitz's picture

Animal Reserach...

Many important and interesting points/questions have already been brought up that I would like to touch on. First off, I think it’s important to note that like many others, I too have worked with animals in a research setting. My first experience was this past summer with mice in a malaria lab, and now I work with mice for my biology senior thesis work. As many have made clear, I think it is crucial to not become completely unaffected by one’s use of animals in research. At the beginning of the year, my lab’s very first lab meeting was about using animals in research: what it means, our previous experience, and how it makes us feel. Keeping these ideas in mind throughout the year has really made a difference for me. I never like sacrificing mice, but hope it is ultimately for a good cause. Also, starting off the year with this mindset has made us all work closer together – we try to minimize the number of mice we have to sacrifice by coordinating who needs cells and when. While this doesn’t necessarily address the basic ethical issues of exploiting animals in research, I think it at least helps me keep an active consciousness about my work and stay continually aware about the animals I use.


The Blue Brain project is absolutely fascinating. I cannot even imagine the work that must be needed to go into creating a functional computer-based brain. However, while I can envision how it may eventually prove incredibly useful in the future as far as scientific research is conducted, I think it has certain unsolvable limitations. It is still going to be a while until it is completed. I would also suspect that when it is finished, ordering one would be quite expensive. And then even if or when we get to that point, its usefulness is limited by how well we can create the program and its software applications (e.g. would researchers buy software that mimics specific drugs in the system or creates lesions or initiates cancers?). I do not mean to make it sound like this is not a worthy endeavor, but it is just so complicated that I think working with animals will always have its value. No matter how perfect this Blue Brain project is ultimately created, there will always be surprises that I think can be discovered and studied in animal research that simply cannot be done on a computational level. Therefore, as Amelia brought up, it is important to realize that there is, and never will be, only one way to do research. Every method or technique will have specific concerns and limitations, but also specific advantages and rewards unattainable by the other methods.


I suspect that reconciling the issues surrounding the use of animals in research will never end. But I think that’s probably a good thing – it keeps us (the researchers) as well as the general public aware of important ethical standards and how we should (and do) treat animals. The debate will and must continue in order for scientific progress to be kept in check. Finding that “line” of what is OK and what is not will always be difficult, but hopefully for the improvement of all animals and scientific progress alike.

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.

Amelia's picture

Support on animal models

In response to Jessica, I have thought about using other models for my pain research when I start in graduate school in the fall. I’m planning to go to Northwestern University for a PhD in Neuroscience and will most likely work with a (well-known) professor who uses both brain imaging techniques for chronic pain conditions and animal models. While visiting, I thought about what answers about chronic pain they have been able to find without using animals, and while they have made some huge discoveries: , it has always been that the imaging work is the first step and then they use rat models to try to confirm and extend their knowledge. I have chosen to stay working with animal models because I feel as though the information you can gain is (at the moment) much more than you can with just using humans (who you usually can’t truly manipulate). This is a paper by the lab that I’m planning to work with which I think points to a great reason to use animal models—through them they have found that chronic pain may in fact be in the cortex-a memory of the pain:

However, Andrea brings up an important point. How good of models are these rats and mice that we use? We accept that they don’t have the cognitive power of primates, and yet often use them for studying learning and memory. The rat chronic pain models, while believed to mimic humans with chronic pain, are never exact. Many chronic pain conditions have no physical origin that can be found—there is not a way, as of yet, to model this type of pain in animals. How could we, since they can’t speak to us? What does this than tell us about pain? I feel as though we admit that there are conclusions that can’t be drawn, and yet we continue to draw them. As researchers we have a responsibility to acknowledge the limitations of our methods, and I think with animal research we must keep in mind that they are not perfect. To draw conclusions to humans (which is what most researchers are trying to do) requires that we make a leap in assumptions. I’m not sure how/will/should this change, but it is something that we need to consider. While rodents may be good models of simple tasks, are we drawing too many conclusions to say that the mice we use as models of Alzheimer’s are just as good? At the same time, how else can research be done? While alternative models may be useful, I think many are a long way off from being even close to the use of animals.

At the same time, self-report in humans also has problems. Basically, there is no perfect way to do research, so we must choose a model and stick with it. Humans, animals, blue brains—all have limitations and all have reasons for use.

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.

aamen's picture

This was a common theme in

This was a common theme in both our discussion and on the forum, but I definitely have fewer moral qualms with the idea of using laboratory animals for research when the research will directly serve to help us (AIDS research, cancer research, etc) than I do with using animals to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  I worked in a lab last summer where they were studying problems with protein transport in rat models of Huntington’s disease, and to do this they had to anesthetize a pregnant rat and use neurons from the brains of the babies.  I had a lot of trouble watching this procedure done, but given the progress that they made in understanding (and hopefully helping people with) Huntington’s, it seemed to be worth it to me.  I was thinking about this in terms of Jessica’s question as to whether researchers really consider alternate models. In the Huntington’s research, for example, I can’t imagine what alternate model would allow you to study protein dysregulation.  Even if you could somehow get humans to donate their brains to research, the neurons would be too mature to be cultivated and studied like the prenatal rat neurons.  At the same time, there are of course limitations to animal models since their brains are obviously not always functionally similar to ours.  Also, to use my experience as an example again, the lab’s results may show what’s going wrong in developing neurons, but how do we know that the same problems exist later in life for people with this condition?  I guess that my personal rational for using animal models of disease is how many advances have been made through this method, even given all the limitations.


The first real discussion of the ethics of laboratory animal use that I had was led by a professor who is personally comfortable using animals in her research.  One of the arguments that I remember her making was that she feels it’s meaningless to talk about “animal rights” because animal species excluding humans are not concerned with the “rights” of others (individuals or species), and if they do not give rights then they don’t deserve to receive them either.  I think this came off harsher than it did when she presented it, but I think the general idea is interesting.  I personally feel like the degree to which an animal is concerned with the “rights” of others varies between species - I don’t feel like humans are the only species who exhibit this characteristic; I feel like dogs probably exhibit it more than flies, and chimpanzees more than dogs.  Maybe this is why to me it’s so much more okay to cause and study genetic deformity in fruit flies than it would be in monkeys.  But, like many other people have pointed out, this still requires drawing a line somewhere between which species are okay to use and which aren’t, and it’s impossible to say where that line is.

Jessica Krueger's picture

Hey All!

Looks like the party started without me!


Thank you all so much for your discussion. I know this topic could have been especially difficult, given its proximity to our own activities during our final year here. Just some more questions I would like to run past you --

-Do we want more legislation for animal testing? Should the government exert more control over what studies are performed and how they are done? Do we want the government interjecting itself into science?

-Given your research project, have you honestly as a researcher considered an alternate model? Check out Altweb ( a "clearing house for information on alternatives to animal research" run by Johns Hopkins. Is there a model detailed there you could use? Why or why not? (Or did you just find something really cool?)

-The Thalidomide disaster does bring to bear an interesting point - the animals in that test did not do all the things the humans  taking the drug did (ie, reproduce). In this instance, arranging a test of tetragenicity would have been appropriate, but there are somethings humans do that animals don't (like self-administer psychedelics). What are some other things that animals don't do (or do) which humans do, and do they have any bearing on biomedical or behavioral research?

-Particularly to those of you who do animal research, how much do you know about the animal you use? Did you think about the limits of your model before this conversation? What conclusions did you come to?


Again, thank you all for participating, and I look forward to seeing you again on Tuesday!

ebitler's picture

interesting thalidomide fact...

I had a very unexpected but relevant conversation with a friend's dad this morning that I thought I would share...

He started telling my friend and I about a small research company that he does business with that was just about bankrupt when they observed an interesting side effect of this terrible drug making headlines for causing deformities.

Apparently the company is now huge because the drug was thalidomide (I bet you saw that coming) and the side effect is that it can be effective in treating cancer.

I had never heard that part before and thought it was really interesting that, while it never should have been taken off-label by pregnant women, having completely stopped research with this drug would have been a loss to the medial community as well.

Emily Alspector's picture

Where is your line?

I found this week's topic to be particularly interesting, but I constantly found myself unable to express my feelings, most likely because they are pretty contradictory. I am not vegetarian nor do usually even think about the animal as an animal when I am eating, and when I worked with mice last semester I found myself doing the same: disconnecting the being from its purpose. I found this to be necessary in order for me to continue my research, and whether or not that's right or wrong, well, I may never know. What I do know is that I eat meat to stay healthy, I am willing to do research involving animals because at this point in time it's all science can give us, yet I find fur coats and leather boots disgusting. Using animals for sheer fashionable purposes is where I draw the line, and I'm sure this line is drawn differently for everyone. And as corrupt and self-centered it may be to rely on the IACUC and IRB boards, there needs to be an agreed upon line that satisfies the most people. We can justify it until our faces turn blue (the animals wouldnt survive, they may not perfectly relate to humans but it's the best we have, etc), but the bottom line is this is the current trend of research, and it generally does a good job, at the very least, of aiding in understanding less complex but related brain functioning.

I thought Emily had a good point in class about the Blue Brain project--if we are basing the computer and building it according to what we know, then what can it teach us? It seems a supercomputer is "smarter" than a person, but if we've built it, how is its output going to be any different from the input we tell it. Our class guest professor made a similar point about calculators--any function of a calculator is that which has been first figured out by a human, and then translated into lay-men's terms. But this doesn't mean the calculator can teach us things we don't already know.

Also, the idea of a computer having consciousness is difficult for me to wrap my head around. Our synaptic plasticity allows for learning and memory storage, but I can't see how this computer, if it is ever completed, can be self-aware. This is an interesting addition to the dualism debate--those who don't believe Descartes should agree that this is one day possible. If we are only made up of communicating neurons (ie, there is no "soul", "mind", whatever youw ant to call it) then this conscious computer shouldn't seem so off base. So I am wondering, of those class members reading this post who don't believe in dualism, how do you feel about this computer project?

Lastly, I thought the topic of lab animals vs educational animals was an interesting one. In high school biology we dissected fetal pigs and frogs, and as far as I can remember I was so focused on not passing out that I didn't really learn a whole lot. Most of my classmates just thought it was cool, but it was probably not necessary for us to use actual animals. I never understood why we couldn't just make plastic models with removable parts so we could learn the anatomy rather than essentially waste these animals on a bunch of high schoolers who don't know the difference?

kbrown's picture

Hi guys,   I wasn't

Hi guys,

  I wasn't able to make it to class last Tuesday, but from reading the postings so far and the assigned articles it sounded like there was a pretty intriguing discussion about the use of animal models in pyschological and biological laboratories.  Being in a thesis group which uses animals, lab mice specifcally, to carry out our experiment, the ethics surrounding the use of animals is something that I have been confronted with on a fairly regular basis, especially because the nature of our study involves inducing pain.  To be completely honest, I still do not have my feelings on the matter completely pinned down.  I obviously, like I'm sure most others in the class, feel that it is valid to use animals in many laboratory situations such as in exploration and treatment of various human diseases (cancer, AIDS etc)  I thought it was interesting, however, that in one of the articles (and it would seem to me in a good part of most of the articles advocating for the use of animals in research) these types of projects were used too vehemently as a reason to continue all types of animal research.  I think, and I think this was mentioned earlier, that if people are going to make a case for continuing animal research they would almost do better to steer clear of the obvious and instead focus on why other uses of animals in research, especially on the psychological end, where we are attempting to figure out why for instance a specific behavior occurs instead of curing an epidemic, are valid. 

I personally do not have an answer to this question, and I agree with Stephanie that there are pretty widespread differing views on the use of animals depending on whether the animal used is a mouse or a primate.  However, in the end I think that the rules for humane lab protocol shouldnt differ among different species, and in fact, I think this might be a good way of understanding what is humane in lower animals such as mice, by asking ourselves whether we would perform the same procedure on an animal we are perhaps more sympathetic towards such as a primate.

That said, I think one thing that is perhaps neglected at least in theory with respect to the use of animals versus the use of humans is the idea of compensation.  When we use humans in studies, we almost always have to present some type of compensation for their time, whether it be credit for a class or monetary compensation.  I wonder sometimes why it is that animals are not afforded the same type of compensation.  Some may argue that as we are the only caretakers of these animals, and that therefore our feeding, sheltering, and general maintainance of these animals is the compensation that they get for participating in our studies.  However, I would say that compensation, as it is for humans, goes above the "basic necessities" of life, and that therefore the compensation for our animal counterparts should be likewise a reward and not a requirement.  This is really at the crux of why I have very little if no problem with animal research carried out in veterinary programs, as they are eventually benefiting the animal kingdom, and therefore I think provide some type of compensation, if not to the individual animal, to their species, for their participation.  I do still, however, feel some disconnect when it comes to using animals for human-only purposes. 


tlogan's picture

Give the Blue Brain a bit of credit...

I agree that it seems highly unlikely that conciousness will be achieved by simply adding more and more connections to a network (though this would be interesting to find out that there was a "magic number"of connections needed to spawn conciousness), and I think that Paul's point in class that the number of connections needed to connect the neo-cortex to the rest of the brain is insurmountable. However, could the neo-cortex be used separately in a virtual environment? It seems as though one not need study behavioral correlates if one simply focuses solely on the neo-cortex.

After re-examining the website, it seems as though the simulation of the neo-cortical column is much more complicated than I had originally thought. I can't help but think that they have taken into consideration that chemical nature of the synapse, but needless to say, I think the project is fascinating.

I think Marissa hits on what I was trying to say initially. We don't need a physical component to a simulated brain, when the results will be no different than the simulation. One need simply get the output from the "brain."

I have to say I don't believe this can reduce or replace the use of animal models, because to put in the most simple terms, both the brain and biology are confounding, and I would say at this point that our overall ignorance of both hinders any attempt to make a virtual model organism that one might actually be able to perform viable experiments with.

Marissa Patterson's picture

Can a computer brain have consciousness

Thanks to Jessica, Gillian, and Tamara for such a relevant and interesting discussion topic.

I was fascinated by the idea of the "blue brain" and whether a completed human brain would have a consciousness. There is a part of me that just has to struggle with that idea, but perhaps that is simply because this is such a different thing than a real brain. Neurons that emit neurotransmitter molecules are not the same thing as computer microchips that simply link to another microchip in a pre-programmed way, and so I am not convinced that they would be able to ultimately function in the same way. I do not know if there would be a way to learn enough about all of the connections between all of the neurons in the brain and then input that into a computer and build the necessary connections.

However, another option is somehow using genetics. We mentioned in class that it would take far too long to build all of the necessary connections between microchips, but humans build a brain in 9 months. Yes, I realize connections continue to build after that, but it is a pretty impressive feat for less than a years time. I wonder if eventually it could be possible to take a genetic sequence for brain development, run THAT on a computer, somehow getting a human brain as an output. What would that look like? Would it have consciousness?

I also wonder how we would KNOW it had consciousness. Would it be necessary to hook it up to some kind of robotic body? They have been doing a lot of research recently into finding ways for brains to talk, for people who are paralyzed for whatever reason to communicate. They've even found a way to show that someone in a vegitative state can understand speech, and so could there eventually be a way for just a lone brain to communicate as well?


Jessica Krueger's picture

But wouldn't a conscious

But wouldn't a conscious entity bring us back to the question between using (supposedly) non-concious animals and conscious humans? If we generate a conscious entity, shouldn't it expect to have a say in its fate, much as the children we generate too?
Gillian Starkey's picture

This is a huge problem that

This is a huge problem that I see with the direction this project is heading. One of the reasons the Blue Brain team started this project, and an argument they use to justify it, is that science needs to move past animal research not only because it's oftentimes inefficient, but also because there are so many ethical dilemmas that accompany it. This is, of course, implying that there would be no more (or far fewer) ethical dilemmas around using their idea of an alternative -- a perfect computer model of the brain -- for research. I think this reasoning is seriously flawed, because if we were to create an exact model of the brain there is a chance that it could be considered conscious. Markram, the project director, (and Professor Grobstein, in class) both seem to think that if we do make a perfect model, there would be no reason for it not to be conscious. In any case, the computer model would then be a conscious entity, and as Jessica alluded to, could we really use it for research? It seems that all the arguments we have against using humans in research would also apply to a conscious computer model. In short, this kind of reveals a problem in the justification behind the Blue Brain project -- it's supposed to create a perfect alternative to a human brain, to circumvent ethical dilemmas associated with human subjects research, but if it's truly a perfect model, it'll have all the same properties as human brains that are the bases of these ethical dilemmas.

As some people have mentioned, there's also a pretty significant methodological issue with this "consciousness" that the Blue Brain team is hoping for, which is, how do we define consciousness in a way that is concrete enough to determine whether or not a computer model has it? Any ideas?

Danielle's picture

Human vs. Animal Morality

During our discussion I felt that we were focusing on the fact that humans are also animals so why do we not use humans for studying disease and for drug testing? And, why do we use smaller animals? I think that the answer can be given in two parts. First, rats, rabbits, hamsters, and other animals typically used for research, all have a lower level of functioning. In some part, this has to do with the fact that these animals have a much smaller cortex than humans. Research shows that it is a human’s larger area of cortex that allows for higher levels of functioning and thought. Thus, lab animals, which have a smaller area of cortex, do not see the world and do not function cognitively in a manner that is comparable to humans. Since lab animals see things differently they probably do not understand or comprehend lab research as a disgrace and abuse to their species. In terms of humans, we see human related lab research as abuse to the human race and as morally disgraceful.


For the second part of the answer, humans have a moral and ethical obligation to the respect of another human. This does not mean all humans are morally or ethically sound, but most of the time people feel that they have a moral obligation to the human species. In terms of lab rats, one lab rat does not feel the same moral obligation to another lab rat in the same way that humans do, primarily because they are incapable of forming these moral judgments. One could say that rats cannot form these moral judgments because they have a smaller cortex.


Another aspect to this whole topic is the fact that the human culture has also molded a socially ethical code. This code involves the respect for one human to another. Again this is not always the case but I feel that we all grow up with this engrained within the culture of our childhood. I think that other animals do not undergo or follow this strict moral code and are incapable of developing such understandings of the world. I do not think taking away a pup from a new rat mother would yield the same emotional response as a human baby being taken away from a human mother. Both cases while cruel in the human perspective would perhaps not be seen as cruel by the rat mother.

Jessica Krueger's picture

Two questions: -does our

Two questions:

-does our ability to form a moral code of respect extend to respecting things underneath us? ie, the lesser cognitive beings?

-what would constitute something cruel in an animal to you?

Paul Grobstein's picture

scientific code of practice ....

Yep, I came away from last week and the previous week thinking too that we need more attention, in classrooms and otherwise, to overall standards for scientific practice. See Science and Public Responsibility and The Need for a Scientific Code of Conduct. Learning by assimilating into a research group needs to be supplemented with some broader perspectives, and research groups themselves could use some as well.  Without it, the enterprise of science risks being held accountable for dubious practices of individual researchers/research groups.
ebitler's picture

Responsibiliy with Animal Research

This is somewhat repetitive of what I said in class, but these are the thoughts that I just keep coming back to…

When it comes to research with animals all of the debate seems to boil down to medial pros and moral cons. I (very personally) believe that extremism is highly problematic in every situation, if for no other reason than it promotes close-mindedness and an unwillingness to consider alternatives. I think that either extreme option (discontinuing the use of animals for moral reasons or promoting all animal research just because it’s research) is irresponsible. (Just a quick side note, one of the easiest ways to decrease the number of animals used would be to lower the criterion for publishable results; so many experiments with strong trends are repeated just to get from strong trend to statistically significant.)

In order to prevent the misuse of lab animals, lines have to be drawn. These lines may seem arbitrary and arguments can always be made for pushing the line one way or the other, but as I see it the line is necessary. Whether or not an individual feels comfortable participating in research is a very personal decision that should be made with a consideration of the ethical and moral issues.

That said I was a little surprised and upset at the notion raised in class that people participating in animal research can end up “using animals just to fit in.” That to me seems irresponsible of the individual performing the research. I very much appreciated that my PI encouraged us to think seriously about our feelings on animal research, and I know that this isn’t the case in all labs. At the same time we are all responsible for our own actions and to not think about what you’re doing but rather point fingers at the lab environment is negligent and immature.

I think it’s very natural to feel uneasy about participating in animal research at first, but most researchers in that position are there because they are interested in the research and find it worthwhile. It’s not easy to see a mouse cut open and perfused. (Saline is injected into the circulatory system to flush out the blood and then a fixative is injected to preserve tissues.) But there’s a difference between feeling uneasy about seeing all the blood and having to try something new on an animal despite believing it to be worthwhile, and feeling uneasy about killing an animal because you feel that is morally reprehensible. If you decide that you’re not comfortable with the moral implications and stop participating in the research that’s fine. If when coming under (inevitable) scrutiny for what they do with animals the researcher blames the lab environment, that just seems careless to me.

So to sum up, apparently irresponsibility with regards to animal research is a pet peeve of mine.

natsu's picture

A Project

I personally work with people in my lab and don't really have any opportunity to think about animal reserach, so it was very interesting to hear from people who have a lot of experience in this area. The only time I used animals in a lab was when I dissected a frog and a rat in intro lab (so I guess this isn't even really for reserach purpose), and I remember being very surprised about how my feelings changed drasticlly just during that lab period.  Having grown up in the city my whole life, I am not what one would call a nature-lover, but at first I felt extremely hesiatant about even looking at the dead animals soaked in chemicals.  However, within minutes I found myself immersed in the task of dissecting these animals.  My face was within a few centimeters away from their bodies, and I was so interested that I couldn't pull my body away from the bench.  The whole task had become "a project "in my mind, and I really was not thinking at all about the fact that these animals may have been running around freely.  And to be honest, I really was not thinking about whether their life was worth my education (probably not), because I was just so engrossed in the task.

I think that people made some really good points about the cost and benefits of animal research.  However, I am sure there are at least some occasions where animals' lives get sacrificed just for people to pursue their interst.  After all, it is so much more easier to say, "Hey, I'm interested whether doing A would lead to B, let's try it out on a flea" than to say something similar for a person.   Though I'm not trying to support "unethical"  use of animals in research, isn't it important for people to be able to pursue their curiosity too?  If we are just curious about something and want to try it out, we can't really do that on a human being...

llamprou's picture

Why do we always come first?

I think it is extremely interesting that human feel that we have the final say in what in fact humane is. Is it okay to test on animals if we create them? So by not pulling them from the wild, are we able to sleep better at night knowing that millions have died to further our understanding of the natural world. I am a biology major and struggle with the experiments that I have personally conducted using animals quite a bit. I still have not come to peace with the idea that I basically "play god" when selecting which animals are going to be used and which are not. Is it really okay to use animals for research if we are the ones who "created" them? Once they have been created is that not the same as testing on an animal we have just picked out of the wild? Can one really make the argument that animals created inside a laboratory are more disposable than those that are not? I do not believe vegetarians discriminate between wild deer and ranch bred cows? What makes us discriminate in the laboratory then? I know that it is difficult to say no to animal research, when so many cures have already been discovered, so many treatments that would have never been approved by the government without animal testing, but I still cannot help but feel extremely uncomfortable when asked whether or not I "believe" in animal testing. I do not believe in harming anything whether that is a fly (which I used to catch using a class and transport outside) or a dog (I have an Italian Greyhound pup and would never, ever, ever subject her to animal testing). I am amazing with the human race and our ability to create a heirarchy in our minds, always putting us at the top.
Jessica Krueger's picture

Is it okay to test on

Is it okay to test on animals if we create them?

I think this is an incredibly important point which warrents discussion. Without research demand, these animals would never have to have been bred to die. 

I do not believe in harming anything whether that is a fly (which I used to catch using a class and transport outside) or a dog (I have an Italian Greyhound pup and would never, ever, ever subject her to animal testing).

Would you get your dog spayed/neutered? Would you get her surgery if her leg broke, or drop a NG tube into if she came down with pancreatitis? In my eights years of veterinary medical experience, there were times when I felt like I was actively torturing animals because the owner wanted me to. There is no way for a pet to consent to major medical procedures, so if I can perform a life-saving operation on a pet, why can't I practice similar procedures, test medicines or investigate mechanisms of behavior in lab animals? What gives us the right to exercise control over pet animals as opposed to lab animals?

Stephanie's picture

animal research

I enjoyed our discussion on animal research and animal models this week.  I have worked with animals, specifically mice, during a psychology lab course at Haverford.  Working directly with animals has given me a different perspective to animal research than I would have had otherwise. For my current thesis project this year, I have chosen to not work with animals and instead work with human subjects.  Although I support using animals for some types of research (those that are worthwhile investigations, can provide important information & knowledge, and those that treat animals with respect, dignity, house & care for animals in humane and proper ways, & minimize & eliminate pain animals must experience), I personally feel more comfortable working with human subjects.  With human subjects I am able to ask for their informed consent, and also put myself through the same procedure I am asking my subjects to undergo- I personally could not conduct an experiment on others that I would not personally do myself.  

I personally feel differently about using different animals in research settings- I'm more okay with using insects (flies, worms, etc), small rodents (mice, rats, guinea pigs), & birds than using dogs, cats, primates.  I believe all the animals should be treated with respect- but I can't seem to get this animal hierarchy out of my thinking when I think about animals to use in research.  I feel "less connected" to the fly than to the dog- I think it is personal choice as to which animals people feel they can do research on- however, no matter the animal, the pain should be minimized and the animal should be treated properly and with respect because they are all living things- like us.  

I think my lab course teacher that conducts research on animals told me some interesting and important things that helped to further my thinking about animal research.  She mentioned how these animals are bred (genetically bred) just for research, they would never be alive if we didn't create them (aka we are not pulling them from the fields & forest and taking them out of their natural environment).  In addition, these animals are being given a constant supply of food & water and are housed in safe & clean places- which are definitely things they would lack in the wild- this is all these mice ever know.  For the life these animals live, I think they are comfortable for the most part- and knowing this- I feel more comfortable utilizing them for worthwhile research purposes.  However, I think it is extremely important that these lab animals are cared for in a respectful and careful manner- I am sure that some labs do not treat their animals the best- and this does bother me a lot.  As we discussed this past week, I think their is a huge need for more regulations & stricter regulations concerning animal research and welfare.  We need to keep better track of the animals being used- so we have accurate numbers- but we also need to ensure these animals are being treated properly.  I also liked the idea of creating some kind of "Scientific Code of Integrity"- maybe it could be something like an oath researcher scientists would take before graduating from programs- sort of like the oath doctors take when graduating med school.  I think a Code of Ethics or Integrity for Science is something the field is missing- some universal governing standard would be nice and is important to have.