November 4, 2021
A few weeks ago, researchers collaborating across the world from Utah to Europe announced that they partially restored vision in a blind woman using a brain implant. Struck totally blind 16 years ago by a sudden, rapid toxic optic neuropathy, Bernardeta Gómez was able to detect basic shapes and discriminate between letters after months of training following her implant. This training consisted of repeated stimulation of Gómez’s visual cortex via the implanted 96-electrode microarray, which is smaller than a penny.
Let’s just pause for a moment and consider this marvel of science and medicine — a blind woman’s sight was partially restored! This is particularly significant because the vast majority of blind people, like Gómez, have damage to the nerve system connecting the retina to the back of the brain. Thus, an artificial eye or retina won’t help them, despite the fact that these are currently the more common forms of treatment for blindness.
But absolutist groups like PETA and White Coat Waste Project (WCW) don’t think Gómez deserves to see again. Why? Because her partial vision restoration depended upon decades of research by these scientists that relied on animal models, including cats and monkeys, to test the safety and efficacy of the type of implant that Gómez received. In fact, just last year, several of the coauthors on the study describing Gómez’s implant — which included Gómez herself as a coauthor — published a study in Science showing the feasibility of a nearly identical device implanted into two rhesus monkeys’ visual cortices. The researchers concluded, “These results demonstrate the potential of electrical stimulation to restore functional, life-enhancing vision in the blind.” PETA, however, unequivocally states that, “animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment [emphasis added].” PETA is morally blind.
WCW takes a different tack, stating that their purpose is to, “To STOP taxpayer-funded experiments on dogs, monkeys, cats, and other animals.” Given that some of this research was funded by the NIH, one wonders — what would Anthony Belotti say to Bernardeta Gómez? Belotti is WCW’s founder, who publicly wrote in 2018 — the same year that Gómez achieved her first moment of sight with her implant — “I don’t want to ban a single animal test. I want to defund them.”
Here at Speaking of Research, we take a different view altogether: the ‘taxpayer waste’ argument is absurd, and in fact, taxpayer-funded animal-based research is a return on investment. Indeed, as the scientists themselves have stated, their studies in animals “demonstrate the potential of electrical stimulation to restore functional, life-enhancing vision in the blind.” When one thinks of the number of people who will one day benefit from this research, and the enhanced quality of life they will realize, just as was done with cochlear implants, the return on investment is clear.
~Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD