Experiments on rats both useful, humane
Recently, I saw some fliers on campus regarding animal experimentation in the Department of Psychology posted by the Animal Defense League. The fliers objected to experimentation on the brains of rats to determine how various chemicals affect brain activity and influence behavior. The ADL portrayed these experiments as the torture of rats and encouraged people to express their views on the matter.
Unfortunately, the ADL did not bother to get all the facts before launching into this campaign. The rats are not tortured, nor are they mistreated. Professor George Rebec, who is in charge of the experiments, said they are very humane.
One of the things the ADL objects to is the insertion of a monitoring device in a rat's brain. This method of experimentation involves performing brain surgery on the rat to prepare it for a probe to be inserted in the brain to monitor the way certain chemicals affect neurons. But the monitoring device is in the rat's brain for only a few hours, and the rat is given about a week to recover from surgery before the monitoring device is even inserted.
There is no pain involved for the rat. It is given full anesthesia before the initial surgery. Once the probe is inserted, it does not restrict the rat's freedom of movement, nor is it painful. In fact, any pain the animals endure would hinder the collection of scientific data, as the animal would not be in a normal state. Since the object of the experiment is to measure the brain's reaction to the chemicals it encounters, placing the rat in an unnatural state would compromise the data.
In addition, any and all experiments on animals at IU-Bloomington must be thoroughly reviewed before they are allowed to proceed. Experiments cannot place undue pain on the animal, and they must follow other guidelines for humane treatment.
The ADL also falsely claims animals are addicted to drugs for the purposes of the experimentation. In fact, the drugs the rats are injected with are given only once to measure what effect those drugs have on brain chemistry. The animals are not addicted. While there is a research project involving long-term addiction and its effects on the brain at IU, the majority of these experiments involve a single injection of the drug in question to measure the chemical effect it has on the brain. It would be nice if the ADL actually researched the facts on an issue such as this before deciding to protest the research.
But the most important factor in this controversy is the reason why these experiments are being performed: The neurons in the rat's brain act very similarly to the neurons in the human brain. Understanding how these neurons operate can be very useful in treating drug addicts in helping them get over their addiction. In addition, since the chemical reactions caused by mind-altering drugs are very similar to chemical reactions that produce schizophrenia, this research might also have applications to treating mental illness.
Why would the ADL want to stop this? Mental illness is a curse to many people, and one would think finding treatments for it -- especially with research methods as humane as what is being done at IU -- would be a good thing.
In addition to the possible treatments this research offers, we can gain a greater understanding of how the human brain operates by examining the neurons in the rat's brain. Since we know so little about how the brain operates, any research into this area has overwhelming potential. Scientists might stumble onto other ways of helping the mentally ill or drug addicts completely unforeseen by researchers.
The ADL will probably ask why we must experiment on animals in this way if other research methods are available. The simple fact is there is no other way to get this kind of information on how neurons operate unless vivisection is used. Computer models can do some things, but they can only give us information on what we already know: the only way to get new information is to see how the brain actually operates.
The experiments being done in IU's psychology department are both humane and potentially very useful in treating disorders of the brain. If the ADL were ever to end this so-called "cruelty," I hope its members could live with themselves if someone they loved was stricken by an ailment this research is designed to treat.