The use of Animals in research and The ethical issues associated with it

The question of whether or not it is useful or even necessary to experiment on defenceless animals is the product of a lively debate amongst psychologists. This storm of controversy is mirrored by the ambivalent attitudes of the public towards scientists, who are often seen as cold and objective, deliberately causing pain to innocent animals when this is not necessarily the truth. So why does the issue of animal research stimulate such impassioned opposition?

The represented underlying uneasiness towards science in my opinion is due in part to a classic misconception, which is underlined by Singer (1974,cited in Olen & Barry 1994, p. 404) that in all research using animals “intolerable pain is caused”. However in respect to psychology like all sciences, causing unnecessary pain to animals in research is not always the case. Likewise the BPS code of conduct (1998, cited in coolican 1999) states that no procedures causing unnecessary pain to certain species can be carried out.

But this is not the only side to the argument Singer (1993) also suggests that the use of animals is a discrimination against their species, and that we should value the suffering of nonhumans in the way we would view our own. This is fair enough to believe but what if the principle of using animals in research, can be justified by the importance of the findings? According to Coolican (1994, p. 485) “comparisons across the phylogenetic scale are invaluable in helping us develop a framework for brain analysis based on evolutionary history”.

He also states that, “a seemingly useless or mystical piece of the nervous system may serve or have served, a function disclosed only through the discovery of its current function in another species”. In the study by Moniz (1949, cited in Pinel 2000) a cure for mental illness through prefrontal lobotomy was discovered, his findings were based on a chimp that frequently became frustrated when making errors during a food rewarding task, and did not so following the creation of a large bilateral lesion (damage to both sides of the brain) in the prefrontal lobes.

Following this observation Moniz persuaded a neurosurgeon to operate on a series of psychiatric patients and was proved to be a therapeutic success with no side effects. However these findings were generalised on the basis of one desired response displayed by a chimp, and how such perceived ecological validity relating to humans that surgery was developed from it is mystifying. Nevertheless this was still a perceived cure and due to these findings new approaches can now be directed at other areas of the brain, leading research a step closer to finding the answer.

In connection to research concentrated on the brain Pellow et al (1985, cited in Pinel 2000) studied the effect of anxiety reducing drugs, in an experiment of the defensive behaviour of rats, using the elevated plus shaped maze. Two arms of the maze have sides the other two don’t, they measured defensiveness or anxiety by the amount of time spent in the enclosed arms rather than exposed arms. Many anxiolytic drugs increased the proportion of time rats spent on the open arms and conversely many of these drugs that prove to be effective in reducing anxiety rats turn out to be effective for the treatment of human anxiety.

Studies using rats can be generalised effectively to humans because “the genetic make up of stimulus response contingencies are similar to that of the human make up” Skinner (1974, cited in Coolican 1999 p. 486). Therefore by showing supporting evidence that the use of animals in research has helped us to understand human stress and anxiety, would we not agree that the use animals to gain such knowledge be justified due to the significance of the findings?

In accordance, the findings of Langston (1986, cited in Pinel 2000) highlighted a needed area for research into Parkinson’s disease, the MPTP model known as (1-methyl-4-phenyl-1, 2, 3, 6-tetrahydropyridine) is used on primates and was accidentally discovered in the use of ‘synthetic heroin’. Langston discovered that primates respond like humans to MPTP, in that their brains display cell loss in the substania niagra, similar to that of Parkinson sufferers, and that the level of dopamine is greatly reduced.

This discovery has already benefited numerous patients with Parkinson’s disease as they found that deprenyl, a monoamine blocks the effects of MPTP in primates, and was subsequently shown that when administered early to Parkinson’s patients significantly reduces the progression of the disease. Pinel (2000 p. 254) suggested “studying an animal is like exploring an unknown maze, because experimentation necessary to identify the neuropathological basis of human neuropsychological diseases is impossible on patients themselves, animal models play an important role in such investigations”.

He also suggests that it is impossible that every animal model investigated will prove to be fruitful in its findings, as even the best models only display some of the features of the disease they are modelling. It is therefore necessary to experiment on all sections of the maze even though the findings may not prove significant, and it is this type of perceived “trivial research” apposed by Singer (1974, cited in Olen & Barry p. 404) that leads us a step further towards the goals of understanding and prevention.

However it is this overarching ideology that precedes the debate, as to why the public feel this sort of research should not be carried out and why scientists face these kinds of ethical dilemmas everyday. But are we not seemingly hypocritical in our views when 15% of the population who disagree with animal testing are happy to agree with the statement that killing animals for food is ok, and besides animals eat other animals so what’s the difference? Is Grebner (1987, cited in Rowan 1995) correct in stating that the media is the key influence on society that leads us into thinking the way that we do?

However despite the classic misconception that all testing is cruel, the BPS code (1998, cited in Coolican 1999) states that it is in-fact illegal to use procedures that severely harm animals with no plausible intent, not to say this never happens but would we not agree that overall science has benefited society with its findings? I understand that there is no right or wrong answer to the question hence the great debate continues, however if we regard research into neuropathological basis of disease and mental illness prevention as highly as we do then why try to jeopardize the potential of our findings with our ambivalent attitudes?

It can also not be argued that ethical implications in such studies do not exist because they do, the simple fact of taking an animal out of its natural environment represents speciesism Singer (1993) not to mention subjecting them to a neuropathological disease in order to find a cure, when in most cases we enter the process ” with little more than a hope that its exploration will prove fruitful” Pinel (2000, p. 254).

Should we therefore regard speciesism more seriously than we do, especially when in experiments on humans where no consent obtained is regarded as unacceptable? I think that the answer to the question depends at least in part on ones own view regarding the cost/benefit analysis of the research, in one opinion “we should stop causing this unnecessary pain to animals” Singer (1974, cited in Olen ; Barry, p. 404) but for others “it is this research that proves significant in leading us a step further to the goals of understanding and prevention of disease” Pinel (2000, p. 54).

Can we actually isolate the answer to a question, a perceived myth, prevailing for hundreds of years, one that from an evolutionary perspective could enhance the health and survival of thousands of future generations? If so then I side with those who believe that the expense of one or even a dozen animals in doing so can be more than justified and in accordance with the consideration of interests we should understand that in the sacrifice of one being, the survival of another is equally important.