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January 18, 2013 / neurograce

Currently Necessary Evil: A (vegan’s) view on the use of animals in neuroscience research

All research methodologies have their challenges. Molecular markers are finicky. Designing human studies is fraught with red tape. And getting neural cultures to grow can seem to require as much luck as skill. But for those of us involved in animal-based research, there is an extra dimension of difficulty: the ethical one. No matter how important the research, performing experiments on animals can stir up some conflicted feelings on the morality of such a method.  This only intensifies when studying the brain, the very seat of what these animals are and how (or how much) they think and feel. Even the staunchest believer in the rightness of animal research still has to contend with the fact that a decent portion of society finds what they do unethical. It is not a trivial issue and shouldn’t be treated as such.

But, like with our use of animals for food, clothing, and a variety of other needs, experimenting on animals dates back millennia. The first recorded cases came from ancient Greece and have continued ever since. Now while historical precedent is not sufficient evidence of ethicality, the history of animal testing does allow us to recognize the great advances that can come from it. Nearly all of our tools of modern medicine, our knowledge about learning and behavior and our standards for food safety and nutrition would be gone with the absence of animal research. I certainly wouldn’t be writing a blog called Neurdiness, because Neuroscience wouldn’t exist as a field. It is clear that animal testing has proven crucial to the advancement of our society, and perhaps even to its very survival. And that value cannot be overlooked or underappreciated when having a discussion about morality.

So, we seem to come to an impasse. The instinctive distaste for replacing freedom with suffering in animals is pitted against the knowledge that this practice will prevent suffering in humans. And how to equate the two is unclear. Is an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s worth the lives of countless rats, mice, and pigs? What about the potential for such a treatment? Does our desire to understand higher cognitive functions—which may not lead directly to medical advances, but could change our notions of who we are and how we think—justify experiments on non-human primates, the only animals from which we can glean such information?  Beliefs exist at either extreme: so-called “abolitionists” claim no exploitation of animals is ever justified, while at the other end is the feeling that animals lack moral standing and their needs are thus subordinate to those of humans.

Personally, I view the use of animals in research as something of a necessary evil. For the majority of human history, people felt free to capture, kill, or enslave animals for a variety of purposes. For food, for powering agricultural tools, for transportation, for materials. We’ve since outgrown the need to use animals for many of these things, but before modern technology their use seemed perfectly justified and even required. Indeed, civilization would be nothing like it is now without our willingness to utilize animals. The present state of neuroscience research is something like that of early humans. I’m vegan because the state of modern food production and distribution means I can be healthy without harming animals. But I’m an animal researcher because in the present state of Neuroscience I know we cannot progress the field without them. We don’t yet have the technology to free ourselves of a dependence on animals, and our ability to reach that point requires their continued use.

Working in this moral gray zone leaves many neuroscientists feeling uneasy about discussing their methodology with the general public. Of course divulging any specific details about animal suppliers or where the animals are housed, etc. is dangerous due to the risk of it falling into the wrong hands, but speaking openly about engaging in animal research should not be outside the realm of comfort of a researcher. The right balance of ensuring safety while still defending your position is clearly a hard one to strike (as the results of this Nature survey suggest). But the voices of scientists involved in the work is crucially needed in the public debate and thus the proper practices need to be established by research institutions so as to disallow the prevention of this participation by fear.

Of course the best way to encourage support for the use of animals in your research is to ensure that you’re doing good science. To most people, animal research is acceptable on the grounds that its providing a significant benefit and experimenters need to keep this mandate in mind. Importantly, doing good science also means adhering to the guidelines for proper care and treatment of laboratory animals. Those concerned about the treatment of animals in labs would be happy to know that there are a plethora of agencies overlooking the design of animal experiments, how animals are housed, and ensuring that the least amount of pain is inflicted as possible (an extensive list of related resources can be found here). An important tenet is the “three R’s” of animal testing. This framework, first put forward by Russell and Burch in 1959, urges reduction (use only the amount of animals needed to significantly verify a finding, and use them wisely and carefully so as to reduce unneeded waste), refinement (use the most humane housing, anesthetic, and experimental techniques available, avoiding invasive and painful procedures if possible), and replacement (seek alternatives to animal use whenever possible; options include culturing tissues in a dish, computational modeling, and the use of lower animals or plant life). Adhering to such rules and guidelines from over-seeing agencies is important for both the continued operation of a lab as well the maintaining a good public perception. Furthermore, the proper treatment of lab animals is not merely a means of appeasing animal rights activists; it is crucial for attaining accurate results, especially in neuroscience. It is known that physical and psychological stress can have huge impacts on the brain and an unhealthy animal is likely to produce unreliable results. Additionally, keeping in line with proper practices can reduce the unease that a researcher may feel about their work with animals.

In the realm of neuroscience, animal research is, in no uncertain terms, a necessity. But at the same time, we are making strides in the implementation of the three R’s, specifically with replacement. The ability to grow neural cultures is widely used when appropriate. Realizing the potential of lower animals to answer questions normally posed to higher ones is also a promising trend. For instance, social behavior in flies and decision-making in rodents are being explored to a greater extent. Computational modeling is also becoming ever more utilized, and while it is far from fully replacing an animal, it can at least predict which experiments have the most potential to be of use, thus reducing wasteful animal use And with time, and the refinement of all these techniques, animals will continue to be used more wisely and with less frequency. So, if researchers don’t become too myopic or complacent, and continue to view their work in the larger ethical context, designing experiments to reduce moral dilemmas, then we can progress in a way that is both humane and fruitful.
Editors (2011). Animal rights and wrongs Nature, 470 (7335), 435-435 DOI: 10.1038/470435a



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  1. vegabondchef / Apr 1 2013 3:04 am

    I feel the exact same way! I can’t believe I’ve found someone else lol. The great majority of vegans I know would be very much against animal testing of any sort… I am a huge fan of neuroscience (not like you of course, I just read the popular books) …and eventually I had to swallow the pill that animal testing is necessary. But the hope is that we can render most of it obsolete some day with technology.

  2. Jenelle Salisbury / Aug 29 2013 3:43 pm

    I’m a vegan and a neuroscience major and I do testing on mice to study Alzheimer’s disease. I feel the exact same way! Thanks for posting.

  3. Kat / Jan 23 2014 11:10 am

    Thank you. I needed this after today, my first mouse brain dissection. It’s very difficult for me.

  4. rstl / Mar 16 2014 12:19 pm

    hi, I’m thinking of choosing neuroscience as major and animal testing really worries me. Although I don’t have an objection to its necessity, it really depresses me. I mean I wouldn’t be able rationalize it and ignore their sufferring. And I really don’t want to be depressed while I’m doing my Bsc. I know that after that I can find a lab that’s doing some research that interests me using non-invasive techniques and whatever… but I’m very worried if I can survive the undergraduate, which is not very much under my control. If you have any advices or thoughts about this I would be very happy to hear it.

    • neurograce / Mar 20 2014 3:37 am

      Depending on where you go for undergrad it may still be quite possible to avoid doing animal work you find upsetting. You could focus more on psychology/behavior, or work with cell cultures, or find a position for yourself in an animal lab that doesn’t require the direct handling of them (do data analysis of experiments already done, eg). Are you concerned about coursework that would require animal work? I can’t really speak to that since my undergrad didn’t require it, but perhaps other students have similar concerns and you guys could support each other when you find it challenging.
      But when it comes to choosing your own lab work, I’d say if you don’t think you want to do the work post-undergrad, there’s no reason to train for it during undergrad.

      • rstl / Mar 20 2014 8:27 am

        thank you! reading this was such a relief. I kept on hearing about dissecting mice (I guess this was about a biology course tough) and things like that, I thought if this is required I could never be graduated. now, what you said sounds very reasonable. I’m more into cognition and -as far as I know- that doesn’t require anything of that kind. even if my interests change, I don’t think it will change into that direction. so might as well not required to do things I will never use. I’m sure there are others like me. thank you very much again.

  5. jenny / Jan 9 2015 8:20 pm

    Hello, I wanted to ask a question along the same lines as the last poster. I just came across your blog post while trying to look up whether animal research is required to go into the field of neuroscience.

    I’ve been considering going for a PhD in neuroscience after over a decade of working in R&D in the petrochemical industry. I’ve been vegan my entire adult life and feel very strongly about animal rights. But I’m also fascinated by brain dysfunction and would like to study it, I finally think it’s what I really want to do in life. Is it possible to do this without working on research that kills (or even utilizes without killing) mice, rats, pigs, etc? Would I be ostracized from the larger neuroscience community, even if I could do it?

  6. neurograce / Jan 10 2015 7:33 pm

    Hi, Jenny. I would say there are a few options, depending on your comfort levels. Much work on neural circuitry is done on lower animals, such as the worm C. elegans, or fruit flies. You could pursue research with those organisms if your concern is mostly with mammals. If you have a problem with *personally* being involved animal work, you could aim for positions that focus on analysis of data other people have obtained from animals. Finally, to avoid animal work all together you could do human studies. EEG and fMRI studies are very common (especially in psychology departments). And I would say if you’re interested in specific brain dysfunctions, why not study them directly in patients with the dysfunction?
    In terms of being ostracized, all of these options are well-trodden paths, so you wouldn’t stand out for not working with animals.The field does still indeed need animal research and even people who don’t work with animals rely on the findings from countless animal studies. So you may make some enemies if you were vocally opposed to your colleagues’ work. This would probably come across as naive and/or hypocritical. But in terms of being ostracized solely for being a vegan who doesn’t want to work with animals herself, I would be surprised if that caused you problems. Hope that helps. Best!

  7. jenny / Jan 12 2015 6:47 pm

    Thanks, neurograce. Eventually I’d prefer to do clinical research on humans with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. I honestly don’t quite know how you could induce these disorders in other animals, anyway. I was worried that just in the course of working on a PhD I would be required to do studies on other animals that would make me really uncomfortable. It’s not my intention to criticize others for their work, but I personally don’t want to be involved in animal research.

  8. garreth / May 29 2015 6:29 am

    Exactly my sentiments! Its a nontrivial issue that lacks alternatives unlike the meat and dairy industry

  9. nik / Jun 21 2015 8:03 pm

    this is a great article. i wish there were others that would speak up. i worked in an animal research lab. it conflicted me so much. i am only a vegetarian, not a vegan but i felt like a sellout. i wasn’t involved with the animals, only the electronics involved with the experiments. the lab uses mice and rats and studies in vivo experiments with vision and behavioral processes and the cells that are firing. the job, environment, and coworkers, were great. the colleagues are smart and respectful and not cruel. they only have improvement of humanity in their minds. just the animal thing was a problem for me. i have the option of going back to work there but i just dont know. is it ok to go back? obviously it is a personal decision. lots of plusses with one big minus. i understand the reasoning in the animal usage but i never expected to be so close to it. i knew the conflict before i started there so it wasn’t a surprise. i just never accepted it. i struggle with this decision. it really is a good interesting job and i have no job currently. again, is it ok to be a part of this.

  10. Lizzie / Nov 4 2015 10:45 am

    It’s so good to know that there are other people facing this issue. I’m vegan, and starting my Neuroscience MRes next year, hopefully a PhD after that. My proposal is epigenetic/endocrinological. and I would love to be able to just use human post-mortem brain tissue, but I doubt I’ll be able to avoid animal testing entirely. As someone mentioned above (rstl), despite accepting the necessity (although I do wish it could be humans used, if anything, given that it is for our benefit) it would still depress me carrying out the act myself. Hypocritical, given that I use the information gleaned, but that’s how I feel. I always managed to skirt around animal experiments during my undergrad… 😦 it isn’t going to be fun.

  11. mc / Mar 6 2016 7:10 pm

    Hello, I’m against the killing and exploitation of animals. I came across this post through google. I’m having a couple of internal debates about going politically active with my beliefs and one ‘impasse’ I noticed in my mind is the one you talk about here. I’m very glad I found this. I have a question about something you said that I think is fundamental to the soundness of your reasoning. You say:

    “We don’t yet have the technology to free ourselves of a dependence on animals, and *our ability to reach that point requires their continued use.”

    How true is this? Isn’t there the possibility of just leaving some areas of research on hold until artificial replacements for the animals are available? Is animal research the only way to reach non-animal research?

    Thank you.

    • neurograce / Mar 6 2016 8:27 pm

      Hello and thanks for your comment.

      I do think it is undoubtedly true that the continued use of animals in research is required to make the necessary progress. Though I can understand how people outside the field would question that. In many cases, the type of research that gets reported on in the media in relation to neuroscience is human fMRI studies. So people may assume that studying humans alone would give us enough information about the brain. In actuality, human studies are incredibly–and prohibitively–limited. fMRI, for example, has vastly poorer spatial and temporal resolution compared to electrophysiology. But more than that, fMRIs development as a technology and the interpretation of its results wouldn’t have been possible without animal testing. Our understandings of how neurons work, how they connect, and how they give rise to behavior required extensive animal testing and all of this forms the basis of neuroscience and how human studies are interpreted. Furthermore, all technologies now used in human studies have been tested in animals. It’s important to note, it’s not just the danger of testing in humans that requires animals. It’s also the fact that humans are widely uncontrollable as they go about their daily lives and have a lot of diversity in genetic makeup. Animal cohorts can be controlled genetically and in terms of when they sleep, eat, interact, etc. That kind of control is very important in scientific studies. (I should note that while I focused on fMRI, any tool used to understand human neuroscience would require the same kind of animal testing to develop and interpret).

      This need for control and desire to understand the brain on the level that most people believe it functions (i.e., the neural level) explains why the majority of academic neuroscience is done on animals in one way or another. Putting these studies “on hold” would halt the progress that could lead to artificial replacements. This is something I can speak to directly, as my work currently is not with animals but involves computational modeling of neural networks. When I’m building an artificial network that is meant to replicate an area of the brain, I need data about that brain area. I need to know the numbers of different cell types and how strongly they connect, which brain regions connect to each other and what information is sent through those connections, how the activity of the cells changes over time and during different behaviors, etc. All of that info comes from experimentalists who work with animals, and I can tell you that there is a lot more of it that needs to be collected before our models are complete. I think this makes sense intuitively: if you know nothing about radios, for example, but someone wanted you to build one, you’d probably start by taking a part an existing one and seeing if you could figure out enough to put one together yourself.

      Another alternative to full animal testing is the use of cell cultures that may come from an animal initially, but could be regrown in the lab (technologies to make this more viable are under development), requiring fewer animals in total. This line of work can be of use to certain neuroscientists, if they are studying properties of individual cells in isolation. However, anyone with any interest in the relationship between neurons and behavior will always require an animal that can perform behavior.

      • mc / Mar 8 2016 5:51 pm

        That makes sense. Thanks.

  12. nik / Mar 9 2016 5:42 pm

    Wow. Thanks guys. Good stuff. That could have been one of the most civil debates on the internet ever.

    I see both sides and am stuck in the middle. I love animals but see the necessity of further research, education, and understanding. It’s a personal choice in the end with no real right answer. But conversations like this go a long way to understanding and respecting each other and their point of views.

  13. german / May 15 2016 11:26 pm

    Thanks for the post, it helps a lot to have more perspective in this issue, i am thinking about studying something related to biology, neuroscience or biotechnology and the animal experimentation problem just keep crushing my head. And although this post give more perspective into the issue, and somehow “relieves” or empathizes of any worries into the area of animal experimentation, i can’t just stop feeling unease, i mean, you just said so, good science should help encourage support in animal experimentation, and also adhere to a more ethical practice, yet, seeing BAD science just ruins things for me (take for example the experiment searching the relation between rats, GMO, and cancer: it was a total disaster, a ethical one), somehow generates distrust into the whole topic.

    The idea that we can not control every experiment on earth to be both ethically and scientifically OK just makes me think that everything that we can say in order to support animal experimentation will not support the general idea of animal experimentation, but just a fraction of it, that fraction bein g a idealized model, in which minimal suffering and high scientific value is obtained, yet it is what it is, an idealized model that works great with people who are aware of the ethical dimension in this topic, but that perhaps doesn’t mean much to people are not aware and see the ethical discussion as a waste of time.
    In the end, what i would really need is more information in this topic, and i would be greatly grateful of finding anything that make my knowledge of this topic more bigger, especially information that constrast itself.
    Anyways, thanks for the post! Bye

  14. Sadscience123 / Aug 20 2016 4:48 am

    Thank you for this post. I’ve loved animals and biology for as long as I can remember. After a long career in the veterinary industry I moved on as a research scientist in cancer biology. I love the concept of my job, but struggle daily with the ethics of animal testing. I’m a vegan as well and honestly was at the point of quitting or having a breakdown due to the constant internal questioning. I know I’m a couple years after the initial post, but I just wanted to say thank you. I didn’t know there were others out there like me.

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