Speaking of Research remembers David Hubel

This guest post by Gregory Frank discusses the life and legacy of David Hubel, who was a great advocate for animal research. Hubel won a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his work on brain functions – much of which involved animal research.

David Hubel, who passed away this fall at the age of 87, not only shared the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his scientific accomplishments, but he also inspired scientists to speak up about how research with animals benefits society.

David Hubel
David Hubel

During the early 1950’s two neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University, David Hubel and his research partner Torsten Weisel, undertook the daunting task of understanding how the brain processes visual information.  Hubel recalled the grueling late night experiments. “I knew we were losing traction in an experiment when Torsten began talking to me Swedish; usually this was around 3:00AM.”  These experiments revolved around using electrodes to map neuronal stimulation in anesthetized cats as well as monkeys. The pair would flash shapes and lines on a screen in front of the animals and try to map out whether different signals would lead to different patterns in the cortex.

Years of painstaking research led to the discovery that different neurons within the visual cortex recognize different shapes and patterns. The columns, lines, colors, and various shapes of an image are all individually recognized by distinct sets of neurons, which are then viewed in its totality by the higher brain centers.  This groundbreaking work led to Hubel and Weisel, along with Roger W. Sperry, winning the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  In addition to their Nobel Prize research, Hubel and Wiesel uncovered the importance of the critical period, a transient, early developmental stage where the brain is highly plastic.  They showed that normal visual stimulation during this time is critical for the visual system to wire correctly.  Their pioneering work has opened the door to the study of how the critical period is controlled by the brain, and how could it be reopened in adulthood to treat not only central deficits of vision, but to allow rewiring of the nervous system after traumatic brain injury.

Hubel understood how animal research was essential to his scientific accomplishments. Long a proponent on the necessity of animal research, Hubel was thrust into the spotlight during his tenure as president of the Society of Neuroscience in 1989.  A spate of extremist attacks on animal research labs during the 1980’s led him to undertake what was then an untested strategy: take proactive action and communicate to the public about animal research, regaining the initiative from extremists.

David Hubel Letter

“I’ve decided to concentrate on offensive tactics, rather than limit myself to fighting brush fires,” Hubel stated in a letter to scientific colleagues building support.  Along with other Nobel laureates, Hubel organized a letter writing campaign to local newspapers, schools, charity organizations, and members of Congress communicating the benefits of humane animal research. He also worked tirelessly to inspire scientists to speak out for themselves, helping organize workshops to train scientists how best to explain their research to their communities.  Hubel also urged physicians to educate patients on how integral animal research was in developing the treatments prescribed to them.

Even late into his career, Hubel remained a strong leader in promoting the benefits of animals in research, adding his considerable voice to animal research awareness actions such as the Pro-Test Petition. This initiative cosponsored by Americans for Medical Progress, Pro-Test for Science, and Speaking of Research, urged scientists to become public advocates for animal research.  Dr. Hubel will be missed for his accomplishments not only in neuroscience but also in animal research advocacy.

Gregory Frank