The Animal Price of Neurotechnology

The frustrating connection between animal testing and understanding in neuroscience.

Nov 21, 2019 · 4 min read
Illustration by Eva Utke.

Industry reports indicate that since 2000, private capital funds have invested more than $19 billion in neurotechnology companies. Vast investment has produced huge results. Almost 200,000 cochlear implants — a widely commercialized form of neurotechnology — have been implanted to date, rapidly bridging the gap between the deaf community and the hearing world. Research in motor prosthetics is, for the first time, helping amputees to truly make movements by thinking about them again. Perhaps even more compellingly, new sensor technology has rendered mood sensing and prediction well within reach.

Lab animals are the unsung heroes of these changes. We can reliably predict neural interactions with technology and pharmacological agents, as well as behavior, based on comprehensive animal studies. Less known is how experiments involving sleep deprivation, torture response, and hallucinogenic agents laid the foundation for much fundamental understanding of the brain. Despite their success, the extensive pain and suffering these experiments caused allude to loose ethical regulations concerning lab animal treatment.

These regulations are especially alarming as they concern rodents. Rodents are the mammalian model of choice for most neuroscience research: although there are key differences in brain morphology, many of the structural and functional relationships are preserved. Even diseases caused specifically by human genes can be replicated in mice through gene altering. This similarity in brain structure makes rodents the ideal subject group for modeling anything from simple neurological disease pathogenesis to more complex neuroscientific phenomena like social, addictive, and cognitive behaviors.

In addition, rodents are inexpensive, reproduce quickly, and easy to house. Widespread testing on rodents has created miniaturized instruments and facilities specialized for rodent care and sample prep. Indeed, much biomedical research has now been shaped to fit the rodent model of scientific discovery.

Accuracy and precedence, however, pale in comparison to the largest incentive for using rodents in neuroscience: one can basically do whatever one likes to them (that is, they’re really convenient). Most lab animals are covered by regulations ensuring adequate justification for use, procedures to minimize pain and suffering, and proof that there are no less painful alternatives. Rodents, however, are explicitly written out of such legislation.

Frustratingly, this freedom from regulation has proved invaluable in many landmark neuroscience research endeavors. Much of what we know about addiction comes from a series of studies in the 1970s, in which rats were confined in solitary cages with ready access to heroin or cocaine: the rats quickly became addicted to the drug even as their health declined, and most died from overdose. Such a study would never have been possible without the ethical standards for rodent research being virtually absent.

Indeed, neuroscience research in particular benefits from loose regulations around rodent testing, due to the complex brain-behavior relationships that are the subject of typical endeavors in the field. How can we observe distress, compulsive behavior, or memory by observing tissue or individual cells? And many questions neuroscientists strive to answer involve the more painful sides of human experience like addiction, responses to extreme duress, and sleep deprivation. When conducting research exploring adverse behavioral phenotypes, distress and pain are part of the package. As such, using human subjects for anything more than an observational study would be considered wildly unethical and out of the question. Imagine the backlash if the aforementioned study on addiction used human subjects!

Mistreatment of rodents is by no means exclusive to neuroscience, and animal welfare advocates take issue with animal abuse in research across the board. However, neuroscience research often involves an element that many animal rights groups would consider a special brand of psychological torture. This element has prompted some animal rights activists to the extreme, resorting to personal attacks on neuroscience researchers and violent extremism. Through the animal rights lobby, the original Animal Welfare Act was passed in 1966, which regulates usage and treatment of animals in research, exhibition, and trade. In 1970, legislators updated the law to encompass all warm blooded laboratory animals, except for mice, rats, and birds. This legislation is still what holds today. In order to stay compliant with this law, research groups and funding shifted towards rodents, solidifying them as the model system of choice. At present, over 95% of research on animals is done on mice or rats, and almost half of all published neuroscience papers involve rodents.

The ethical debate on animal testing often boils down anthropocentrism. One might argue that a life-saving vaccine is worth the lives of a few hundred mice. But as neurotechnology turns more towards upgrading the human experience and further away from solving immediate health concerns, how must the utilitarian argument change? While 300 mice might be worth sacrificing to save one sick child, one would be less inclined to argue that 300 mice are worth a new line of lipstick. The conversation must be dynamic, especially as we enter the realm of cosmetic neurotechnology enhancements. If animal suffering is a necessary evil that allows for saving human lives, it appears irresponsible to claim that enhancing focus or think-to-scroll fall in the same category.

From a research perspective, animal rights groups are often seen as, at best, an ignorant nuisance, and at worst, a danger to public safety. Likewise, animal rights organizations see laboratory scientists as morally reprehensible. While it seems like this debate has reached a state of aporia, as neurotechnology research shifts focus, each side may need to reevaluate the integrity of the primary arguments. Just because the scientific community has reached consensus about animal testing right now, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable as paradigms change.

This article was written by Lillian Shallow and Melody Sifry, and edited by Christopher Zou.

Lillian and Melody study Molecular Biology and Cognitive Science, respectively, at UC Berkeley. Christopher studies Computer Science and Molecular Biology.

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We write on psychology, ethics, neuroscience, and the newest in neural engineering. @UC Berkeley


Writers, consultants, engineers, and designers working toward advancing neurotechnology for the benefit of humanity.

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