Animal Models: Should we be doing this?

Jessica Krueger's picture

            When I selected “Animal Models” as a discussion topic for my senior year neuroscience seminar, I honestly expected no one to care. This isn’t to say I wasn’t expecting a reaction: I’ve always been very forthright about my work with animals, from breeding rabbits in my youth to working part time in a veterinary hospital straight on to behavioral research in lab rats, and I have consequently been engaged in vehemently angry discussions about animal usage and how what I do is wrong. Although I knew I would be in a room with fellow researchers, I still feared that at worst I would be attacked and at not-quite-so-bad I wouldn’t get a response beyond “We don’t think about it.” Oh how wrong I was; many students reported that they had grappled with this morally unwieldy topic for quite some time and many had not yet “pinned down” their feelings about the use of animals in research. Such confusion is not surprising when one considers the ambiguities which plague this particular topic: why do we use animal models? how effective are they? what is being done to protect them from unnecessary abuse? why don’t we use humans? what effective alternatives are there? can we ever hope to truly model humanity? We hoped to inform these musings with some basic background in animal research, consideration of the validity of the use of animals as modeling humans, a brief overview of how human research is conducted and finally a potential, but controversial, alternative computer model.

            Humans have manipulated animals to better their understanding of their world since at least the time of Galen (126-216 A.D.), but as our understanding flourished our concern for the welfare of these beasts of scientific burden sadly flagged. As Bernard E. Rollins pointed out in his paper on the morality of animal research, early legislation concerned itself primarily with property rights and flushing out “sadists and psychopaths, who are known to begin inflicting pain and suffering on animals before 'graduating' to people. It is not surprising then, that with 'cruelty' being the only ethical tool available, opponents of animal research labeled researchers as cruel.” What scanty legislation concerning cruelty to animals there was explicitly exempted laboratory animals from protection. The first legislation to directly address animal welfare did not appear in the US until the mid-sixties, and even then it was primarily concerned with the protection of pets being sold to research facilities – once they passed the laboratory threshold it appeared that the government was no longer concerned.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the “Improved Standards for Laboratory Animals Act” was passed, the first law to ever explicitly address animals used in research. However even to this day laws concerning research animals continue to exclude the three primary species of scientific inquiry: rats, pigeons and mice. Most animal research is monitored by institutional animal care and usage committees composed of members of the research and lay community, consequently actual reinforcement and violation of policy is always mediated by the home institution. To me, at least, the lack of control over and knowledge about what is being done to research animals is deeply disturbing; part of how I’d justified my acceptance of animal research was the assumption that their usage was strictly regulated. Several students in the forum and discussion were alarmed about how little we know about the laboratory animals in this country, and most agreed more governmental oversight was in order. Given all this potential for abuse, what is the reasoning behind using animals to answers questions about ourselves?

            I find it ironic that the researcher who introduced the prototypical research animal, the albino rat, never intended it to be considered analogous to humans. Adolf Meyer emphasized the distinctions between humans and lesser animals and used the rat in his research as a foil rather than a mirror. While no one is arguing that a man and a fish are functionally equivalent, natural selection seems to err on the side of conservation when it comes to constructing basic physiological systems. Within Mammalia there appears to be a great many shared organs and processes, allowing a high degree of generalizability for results derived from mammalian models. Animal models can be selected for their capacity to allow isolation of a physiological process, for their high reproduction rate, or for their short lifespan such that the inquiry and that which is investigated align with as little waste as possible. Yet there may be other, less wholesome reasons for the use of animals in research as indicated in and the forum – they remind us less of ourselves, because other researchers are using them, or they are cheaper than compensating humans.

Plaguing this discourse was an unflagging but admittedly problematic sense that humans are somehow morally superior and able to determine who and what must suffer for the greater good. Confounds and failures abound in the use of animal models: Ian Morton pointed out the plain laboratory environment itself may prove and unnatural stressor and augment animal behavior, Tamara rightly asserted that the best model for like is like, and I myself pointed out that there a many things that humans do which animals simply do not do or are not behaviors subjected to testing. The thalidomide disaster was a perfect example of animal testing gone wrong. A drug never tested in pregnant rats was sold to mothers as a morning-sickness cure resulting in seriously disfigured children. So why not just test on humans?

            One effect of working with or on animals which was repeated several times in the course of our real-time and virtual discussion was the dissociation we do between the animals we keep as pets, which are companions comparable to friends, and the animals in labs, which become more like things to us, parts in the machine of science with no more emotional experience than a used scalpel. When this sort of objectification occurs with regard to animals, it’s disturbing; when in regard to humans it’s catastrophic. Further complications in using humans as subjects are reflected by the inquiry an institutional review board (IRB) must perform before any experiment may be conducted; weighing individual risk against the greater good, ensuring consent and confidentiality and consideration of problematic populations. A general consensus that human models would be ideal, but are not likely to happen given the many ethical issues surrounding human research, was met early in the discussion didn’t receive much traffic in the course forums.

            The duplicitous nature of both animal and human research, along with public opinion concerning animal testing, are pressuring scientists to find alternate methods for modeling biological processes. Perhaps due to its seeming ability to do exactly what neuroscientists argue is impossible, the Blue Brain Project and its implications dominated discussion in both forums. Henry Markram, enraptured by his observation of two neural cells communicating, teamed up with IBM to attempt something so incredible, it borders on ridiculousness. To the tune of at least $3 billion a year, Markram has modeled a single rat neocortical column and this scientist is not content to think this small for long. Beginning with a complete rat brain and progressing all the way to monkeys, the computer scientists hope to evnetually realize a functional, computer-based model of a human brain. Most of us, including guest professor Paul Neuman, guffawed at the claim. First, there and many times many times many ever changing connections between the brain and the external environment, and a sizable factor more within brain connections to negotiate. Second, because this model will be constructed by humans, it won’t be able to tell us anything we don’t already know. Blue Brain may be able to tell us faster, much like a calculator can solve a log-function faster than I could by hand, but the only reason it can do that is because a human who knew how to solve said problem programed the equipment. Finally, if the project were successful in recreating a human brain inside a computer, who’s to say it won’t have consciousness? Gillian explains, “It seems that all the arguments we have against using humans in research would also apply to a conscious computer model.” It begs the question, what good would a sentient computer be if we must obtain consent before testing a new “drug” program which could pose a risk to the entity inside?            

        A final consideration of the use of animals we had not indepedently considered was the use of animals in education. In her post to the forum, Emily Alspector indicated that the use of real animals in high school education might be wasteful, “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?” In later discussion, Professor Morris explained that she herself had run aground on the issue. Is it justifiable to sacrifice hundred of chick embryos or flies to teach undergraduates who may or may not go on to major in the field about the fundamentals biology? Perhaps some ambiguities and confusions surrounding the use of animals in research could be resolved if researchers were willing to submit themselves to a code of ethics. Professor Grobstein published a website intended to promote exploration to this effect, “The Need for a Science Code of Conduct?” I personally would also like to introduce the use of animals as pets and the all too frequent submission of these companion animals to major medical procedures for the (undeniably) substantial benefit of the few. Another direction for further inquiry was broached when the topic of how one could go about limiting animal usage in research by only performing “necessary” experiments. Who would define such a procedure? Germane to this future discussion is the role the government should assume in research. While it was generally agreed that more regulation was necessary to ensure the welfare of laboratory animals, I’m not sure how I feel about a government designed to change every four years and which has proven itself subject to the whims of fashionable morality dictating research. Despite the best efforts of both animal rights activists and researchers unto themselves, it would appear the use of animals to explore our world, and the problems intrinsic this method, will be accompanying us researchers for a long, long time.

Alspector, E. Where is your line?

Grobstein, P. scientific code of practice ....

Morton, I. While I have a fair bit to

Starkey, G. This is a huge problem that

Tomaisic, Human research...

Graham-Rowe, D. (2007). A Working Brain Model. Technology Review. Retrieved on 3/4/2008 from <>.Rollin, B. E. Animal research: a moral science. Talking Point on the use of animals in scientific research. Retrieved from <>.United States Department of Health and Human Services: Office for Human Research Protections. Retrieved from <>.


Anonymous's picture

I am currently researching

I am currently researching the animal model as well in a capstone class within psychology. I am trying to focus on if we should be using an animal model at all. If there is any adivce you could give in researching this topic, I would appreciate it.

Paul Grobstein's picture

animal research and moral wrestling

I too was pleased that most people did indeed experience a wrestling with this problem, as I have throughout my own research career. And maybe that's the most important point, not that there is an answer for all time but rather that one should indeed be wrestling with the question in every case. Perhaps that's a good general principle for a code of ethics/morality for science?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.