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The Trouble with Animal Models in Brain Research

Part of the Advances in Neuroethics book series (AIN)

Abstract

This chapter focuses on two problems, or “troubles,” with animal models used in neuroscientific research: the failure of many animal models to yield useful and beneficial information and the ethical dilemma built into claims about the similarity-based usefulness of an animal model, which is especially acute in the context of brain-related research. There are well-documented problems with validity and reproducibility, resulting in the failure of animal research to translate to humans. This chapter will focus in particular on the well-known and well-studied failure of animal models in stroke research. The essentially Utilitarian cost/benefit claim that human benefits justify harms to animals in research is threatened if those benefits consistently fail to materialize and, indeed, if there is the potential for significant harm to humans, including opportunity costs, wasted resources, and risks to human research subjects. An honest reckoning of the costs, harms, and benefits of animal research is unlikely to support the status quo because very little research will be useful or needed, and thus very little will be ethically justifiable.

Keywords

  • Animal models
  • Animal research
  • Research ethics
  • Neuroscience
  • Stroke
  • Dogs

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Consider an analogy. Five-day weather forecasts are accurate 90% of the time (https://scijinks.gov/forecast-reliability/). But imagine the opposite were true, and they were wrong 90% of the time. That would give us good reason to distrust the reliability of weather forecasts, and it would give the field of meteorology good scientific reasons to reconsider or justify its methodologies. Most of the time, inaccurate weather forecasts do not endanger lives. The 90% failure of animal research to translate to humans does endanger human life and safety and results in nonbeneficial harms to animals, both of which threaten the scientific and ethical justification for continuing to use animal models.

  2. 2.

    t-PA was developed using a rabbit model of thromboembolic stroke [27]. The drug was FDA-approved in 1996.

  3. 3.

    The STAIR guidelines for testing drugs require (1) that the drug should have been tested in both transient and permanent occlusion models, (2) reproducibility, with efficacy demonstrable in at least 2 independent laboratories, (3) evidence for efficacy based both on histological and behavioral outcome measures, (4) characterization of a therapeutic time window relative to the time of onset of the ischemic injury during which the drug is effective, and (5) evidence for efficacy in at least 2 species, 1 of which is a cat or primate [10].

  4. 4.

    As reported by Bath et al. [31], the animals used were 9 mice, 544 rats, 32 marmosets, and 89 rabbits, totaling 674 animals. Published results for animal studies in rats and marmosets were positive.

  5. 5.

    If possessing some subset or quantity of these traits or abilities is enough to matter morally, then it must be possible that nonhumans, whether animal or nonanimal (e.g., extraterrestrials, robots, or AIs), qualify.

  6. 6.

    Berns’ research with dogs is not invasive or harmful. The dogs are trained through positive reinforcement to enter the fMRI machine and to remain still during scanning, but they are never restrained or sedated and are free to get up and leave if they do not want to participate [42].

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Acknowledgement

Many thanks to Pandora Pound for her helpful and generous comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.

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Johnson, L.S.M. (2020). The Trouble with Animal Models in Brain Research. In: Johnson, L., Fenton, A., Shriver, A. (eds) Neuroethics and Nonhuman Animals. Advances in Neuroethics. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-31011-0_16

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