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Not just intelligence: Why humans deserve to be treated better than animals

One of the cornerstone ideas of the animal rights movement is that there are no fundamental differences between humans and animals: humans are just animals, only more intelligent (Ryder, 1991). Therefore, some argue, since having a larger brain is just another quirk, like having larger tusks, animals should have many of the same rights as humans. In particular, they should have a right to life, a right to freedom and a right not be used by humans. Moreover, the well-being of humans should not be put above the well-being of animals (Singer, 1991), so that doing research on animals cannot be justified by improvements in human health, as scientists claim (Ringach, 2011; Bennett and Ringach, 2016). Of course, all of this flies in the face of the values of all human societies from prehistory to date, which have used animals for food, clothing, work and entertainment. No matter, says the animal right activist, that is unethical and has to stop (Reagan, 1985).

In the past, justification for human primacy over animals came from religions that stated that humans are superior to animals because they have an immortal soul, and that God commanded humans to rule over animals. However, the Theory of Evolution and modern physiology have pushed back against those beliefs, showing that there is an evolutionary continuum between animals and humans and that there are no fundamental differences between the physiology of the humans and other mammals (Rachels, 1990) . If the only difference between humans and animals is that of a higher intelligence, does that justify that we treat ourselves better than the animals? Or is this just self-interested behavior, “speciesism”, as the animal rights proponent Richard Ryder has called it (Ryder, 1991)? To strengthen their case, animal right proponents invoke the “marginal case”: these include infants and those with significant mental impairment who, lacking superior intelligence, then should presumably be treated the same way as animals (Reagan, 1985; Singer, 1991). Otherwise, they argue, we should be prepared to give animals the same rights that we readily give these marginal case humans.

However, modern neuroscience has in fact uncovered many differences between humans and the rest of the animals that makes us unique. These differences are not limited to a quantitative difference in intelligence but extend to many other mental and behavioral abilities that make us completely unique (Penn et al., 2008), a qualitatively different type of being.  Below I provide a list of the most important of those abilities.

theory-of-mind-of-children

  1. Theory of Mind is the ability to understand what other people are feeling and thinking [pp. 172-178 in (Blackmore, 2004); pp. 48-54 in (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. We do that by running inside our heads a model of what is happening in other person’s mind. Of course, the model is not always right, but nevertheless it is extremely valuable because it lets us predict the behavior of people around us. Theory of mind seems to require the right anterior insula, a part of the brain cortex that evolved very rapidly in apes. The function of the right anterior insula is to create hypothetical models of the internal state of our body in different circumstances (Craig, 2010, 2011). For example, when we imagine what it would feel like to stab our toe, is the right anterior insula doing that. Likewise, the right anterior insula can make a model of the internal state of the body of another person. Of course, theory of mind is much more than that and involves the cognitive abilities of many other parts of the brain. Research on theory of mind has revealed it to be uniquely human (Penn and Povinelli, 2007), although some studies claims to have found it in rudimentary form in chimpanzees (Call and Tomasello, 2008; Yamamoto et al., 2013). One negative aspect of theory of mind is that it often creates the delusion of attributing human consciousness to inanimate objects or animals. The same way we project our thoughts and feelings to a person that we see behaving in a way similar to us, we project human thoughts and feelings to an animal or an object we see doing something that resembles human behavior. This delusional form of theory of mind is responsible for the anthropomorphizing of animals that is so common in modern culture.
  1. Episodic memory. There are two basic forms of memory: procedural and declarative [pp. 303-306 in (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. Procedural memory is present in both humans and animals and consists in the retention of perceptual, motor and cognitive skills that are then expressed non-consciously. For example, when we walk, swim, ski, listen to music, type on a keyboard or process the visual information we get from a television screen, we use procedural memory. Declarative memory stores information about facts and beliefs about the world, and can be further divided into semantic and episodic memory. Semantic memory is about facts in the world that stand by themselves, independently of our self, whereas episodic memory is remembering things that happened to us. That is, episodic memory retains events as they were experienced by ourselves in a particular place and time. Episodic memory appears to be uniquely human, because it involves subjective experiences, a concept of self and subjective time. This is important because it allows us to travel mentally in time through subjective experiences, while animals are locked in the present of their current motivational state.

guilt

  1. Humans emotions. Mammals, birds and some other animals have a set of six basic emotions listed by Ekman: anger, fear, disgust, joy, sadness and surprise. However, we humans are able to feel many other emotions that regulate our social behavior and the way we view the world: guilt, shame, pride, honor, awe, interest, envy, nostalgia, hope, despair, contempt and many others. While emotions like love and loyalty may be present in mammals that live in hierarchical societies, emotions like guilt, shame and their counterparts pride and honor seem to be uniquely human. There is much controversy these days on whether dogs feel guilt and shame, there is evidence that they do not, but they may also have acquired this emotion as a way to interact with humans. What is clear is that many of the emotions that we value as human are not present in animals.

theory-of-mind

 

  1. Empathy and compassion. Empathy is defined as the capacity to feel what another person is feeling from their own frame of reference. It is a well-established fact that many animals react to distress by other animals by showing signs of distress themselves. However, this does not seem to represent true empathy as defined above, but a genetically encoded stress response in anticipation of harm. Since empathy requires feeling what the other person is feeling from their own frame of reference, it seems to require theory of mind. Only if we stripe the requirement of adopting the other’s frame of reference we can say that animals have empathy. Empathy involves the newly evolved anterior insula in humans (Preis et al., 2013), bonobos and chimpanzees (Rilling et al., 2012). Compassion is currently thought to be different from empathy because it involves many other parts of the brain. It seems to be associated with complex cultural and cognitive elements. Therefore, it seems safe to assume that animals are not able to feel compassion.
  1. Language and culture. Although animals do communicate with each other using sounds, signs and body language, human language is a qualitative leap from any form of animal communication in its unique ability to convey factual information and not just emotional states. In that, human language is linked to our ability to store huge amounts of semantic and episodic memory, as defined above. The human brain has a unique capacity to quickly learn spoken languages during a portal that closes around 5-6 years of age. Attempts to teach sign languages to apes has produced only limited success and can be attributed to a humanization of the brain of those animals, raised inside human culture. The effectiveness of spoken and written language to store information across many generations gave raise to human cultures. The working of the human brain cannot be understood without taking culture into account. Culture completely shapes the way we think, feel, perceive and behave. Although there are documented cases of transmission of learned information across generations in animals, producing what we could call an animal culture, no animal is as shaped by culture as we are.
  1. Esthetic sense or the appreciation of beauty also seems to be uniquely human. Of course, animals can produce great beauty in the form of colorful bodies, songs and artful behavior. What seems to be lacking is their ability to appreciate and value that beauty beyond stereotypical mating and territorial behaviors. Even attempts to teach chimps to produce art by drawing have largely failed.
  1. Ethics is the ability to appreciate fairness, justice and rights. It is at the very core of our ability to form stable societies and to cooperate to achieve common goals. It depends on theory of mind (which allows us to “put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes”); on social emotions like guilt, shame, pride and contempt; on empathy and compassion, and on cultural heritage. Lacking all those mental abilities, animals have no sense of ethics. Even though some studies have shown that monkeys have a primitive sense of fairness (particularly when it applies to their own interest), it is but a pale anticipation of our sense of justice. It simply goes to show how that ethics is rooted in our evolutionary history. The fact that animals cannot even remotely comprehend the concept of rights is a strong argument for why they should not have rights. What sense does it make to give animals something that they do not know that they lack?

use-of-language

  1. Extended consciousness. They question of what is consciousness has been called by scientists and philosophers “the hard problem” due to the difficulty of answering it (Blackmore, 2004). Therefore, the related question of whether animals have consciousness, or what animals have it, remains similarly unanswered in the strict sense. However, based on their behavior, we commonly assume that animals like cats, dogs and horses are conscious and able to make some autonomous decisions. On the other hand, unless we invoke some mystical definition of consciousness, it is safe to assume that animals with small nervous systems, like jellyfish, worms, starfish, snails and clams have no consciousness whatsoever. They are like plants: living beings able to react to the environment as automatons. That leaves a lot of animals for which it is hard to guess whether they are conscious or not: insects, fish, octopi, lizards and small mammals like mice and rats. What has been becoming clear is that we humans possess a kind of consciousness that no other animal has: the ability to see ourselves as selves extending from the pass to the future [pp. 309-321 (Gazzaniga, 2008)]. This special kind of consciousness has been called by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio “extended consciousness” [Chapter 7 in (Damasio, 1999)] and allow us a sort of “mental time travel” to relive events in the past and predict what may happen to us in the future (Suddendorf and Corballis, 2007). Extended consciousness is based on our ability to have episodic memory and theory of mind. Episodic memory configures remembered events around the image of the self, whereas theory of mind allows us to create a model of our own mind as it was during a past event or to hypothesize how it would be in a future event. I should also point out that a few animals (apes, dolphins and elephants) may turn out to have episodic memory, theory of mind and hence extended consciousness. However, this is still very much in doubt.
  1. Suffering and happiness. It is a common mistake to confuse suffering with pain and happiness with joy. Pain is the representation of a bodily state and the emotion associated with it (Craig, 2003). Likewise, joy is an emotion associated with an excited but pleasant body state in an agreeable environment. Suffering and happiness are much deeper than that, and refer to the totality of a mental state, encompassing cognition, emotion and state of consciousness. Although suffering and happiness are normally associated with certain emotions, there is not always a correspondence with them. For example, one can be happy while feeling scared or sad, or suffer even in the presence of a passing joy. The error of philosophers like Peter Singer (Singer, 1991) and Tom Reagan (Reagan, 1985) is that they consider suffering as something that occurs independently of cognition and other mental abilities, when it does not. Arguably, happiness and suffering require some continuity in time, which would seem to require extended consciousness. Furthermore, conceptions of happiness extending to antiquity refer to lifelong attitudes like hedonism (the quest for personal pleasure) and eudemonia (working to acquire virtue or to achieve goals that transcend oneself), pointing to the fact that human happiness depends on cultural values. In view of all this, we need to wonder whether happiness and suffering can exist in beings that have no episodic memory, no extended consciousness, no sense of self, and no culture. Can happiness and suffering really be attributed to animals lacking these mental abilities? Or is this an illusion, an anthropomorphizing caused by the overreaching of our theory of mind? Without going to that extreme, it is quite clear that we humans have a capacity to be happy and to suffer that goes far beyond what animals can experience. So human suffering counts more than any suffering than an animal could have.

There are many more differences between human and animals. However, the ones that I have listed here are important because they give us our special feeling of humaneness. All of them are based on scientific facts about the human mind that are slowly being unraveled by neuroscience, not on religious beliefs or on ideology. However, what cannot be based on science is the value we attribute to those differences. Ultimately, this is a decision based on our ethical intuition. Still, for most people what determines how much consideration we should give to a being is its ability to be conscious; to feel empathy; to feel guilt and pride and shame and all other human emotions; to be happy as we are happy and to suffer like we suffer.

An important corollary of the ideas proposed here is to utterly refute the “marginal case” argument. Thus, even when a human brain is damaged by disease, accident or old age, most of the properties that I have listed here remain because they are deeply engrained in the way the human brain works. Theory of mind and extended consciousness appear early in human life and are the last things to go in a deteriorating brain. It takes coma to deprive us of them. A person may have a reduced intelligence or other cognitive disabilities, but s/he still has theory of mind, empathy, compassion, extended consciousness and all those human emotions. That is why when we encounter those people we recognize them as humans and we know we should treat them as humans. They are not animals and should never be treated as such. Intelligence is just a tiny part of what it means to be human.

Another important idea is that there are vast differences in the mental abilities of animals and, therefore, in the way they should be treated. Many animals, like jellyfish, worms and clams, do not have any mental capabilities at all, do not feel pain, and can be treated the same as plants. In the other side of the mental spectrum, it is possible that we will find that the great apes, dolphins and elephants have some form of theory of mind and extended consciousness, and therefore deserve a special treatment compared to other animals. Dog and cats have evolved special ways to communicate with humans that make them special in our eyes. So, when it comes to ethical consideration, animals should not be put in a general category, but each species should be assigned its own value. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in the quandary of not being able to rid our dog of fleas because these insects have the same “rights” as the dog. This is, in fact, what we have been doing all along: to establish a hierarchy of animals that deserve more or less consideration based on their mental abilities, putting humans at the top. Speciesism is unavoidable because we cannot treat different species of animals the same way.

Let me finish by saying that this is not an argument to treat animals cruelly or poorly. It is only an argument to treat humans better than animals and to keep using animals for our benefit. We should care about the welfare of animals, even as we try to understand how similar and how different they are from ourselves. What moves us to treat animals well is our empathy, our compassion, our sense of fairness and our cultural values. Things that animals do not have. Ultimately, we must treat animals right not because of what they are, but because of who we are.

by Juan Carlos Marvizon, Ph.D.

References:

Bennett Allyson J, Ringach Dario L (2016) Animal Research in Neuroscience: A Duty to Engage. Neuron 92:653-657.

Blackmore S (2004) Consciousness: An Introduction. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Call J, Tomasello M (2008) Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends Cogn Sci 12:187-192.

Craig AD (2003) A new view of pain as a homeostatic emotion. Trends Neurosci 26:303-307.

Craig AD (2010) The sentient self. Brain Struct Funct 214:563-577.

Craig AD (2011) Significance of the insula for the evolution of human awareness of feelings from the body. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1225:72-82.

Damasio AR (1999) The Feeling of What Happens.

Gazzaniga MS (2008) Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Penn DC, Povinelli DJ (2007) On the lack of evidence that non-human animals possess anything remotely resembling a ‘theory of mind’. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological sciences 362:731-744.

Penn DC, Holyoak KJ, Povinelli DJ (2008) Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and nonhuman minds. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31:109-130; discussion 130-178.

Preis MA, Schmidt-Samoa C, Dechent P, Kroener-Herwig B (2013) The effects of prior pain experience on neural correlates of empathy for pain: An fMRI study. Pain 154:411-418.

Rachels J (1990) Created from Animals: The Moral Implication of Darwinism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Reagan T (1985) The Case for Animal Rights. In: In Defence of Animals (Singer P, ed), pp 13-26. New York: Basic Blackwell.

Rilling JK, Scholz J, Preuss TM, Glasser MF, Errangi BK, Behrens TE (2012) Differences between chimpanzees and bonobos in neural systems supporting social cognition. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 7:369-379.

Ringach DL (2011) The Use of Nonhuman Animals in Biomedical Research. American Journal of Medical Sciences 342:305-313.

Ryder R (1991) Speciecism. In: Animal Experimentation: The Moral Issues (Baird RM, Rosenbaum SE, eds), pp 24-34. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Singer P (1991) The Significance of Animal Suffering. In: Animal Experimentation: The Moral Issues (Baird RM, Rosenbaum M, eds), pp 57-66. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Suddendorf T, Corballis MC (2007) The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans? Behav Brain Sci 30:299-313; discussion 313-251.

Yamamoto S, Humle T, Tanaka M (2013) Basis for cumulative cultural evolution in chimpanzees: social learning of a more efficient tool-use technique. PLoS One 8:e55768.

Rise in animal experiments in Denmark in 2015

Last week we looked at the 2015 animal research statistics for Spain, this week we move our attention to Denmark.  The newly published report by the Animal Research Inspectorate (Dyreforsøgstilsynet) shows that the number of procedures on animals carried out in Denmark in 2015 was 241,657, up 21% from 2014. The number of animals used is likely to be very similar.

Animal Research in Denmark in 2015. Click to Enlarge

Animal Research in Denmark in 2015. Click to Enlarge

There were rises in the number of procedures on all the main species – mice, rats, fish and birds. Fish saw one of the larger increases, up over 8,000 (77%) from 2014. The only major decrease was a 70% fall in the number of procedures on dogs – which fell from 224 to 68.

Mice, rats, fish and birds accounted for over 96% of research in Denmark.

Mice, rats, fish and birds accounted for over 96% of research in Denmark.

Mice, rats, fish and birds accounted for over 96% of research animals in Denmark, similar to many other EU countries. Dogs and cats accounted for just 0.05% of research animals, with no primates used in either 2015 or 2014.

Severity of animal experiments in Denmark

The new EU guidelines also require retrospective reporting of animal suffering in experiments. Of the 241,657 procedures in Denmark in 2015, over 90% were mild or moderate, 8.7% were non-recovery (where the animal is fully anaesthetised before surgery and then never woken up) and just 0.9% were severe. The proportion of severe experiments is below what has been reported in many other European countries. Most severe experiments were on mice. For more information see Figure 6 of the Government statistical release (in Spanish).

Animal Research Trends in Denmark

Animal Research Trends in Denmark

The number of animals used in testing and research since 2009 has gently decreased from over 290,000 to just over 240,000, a 17% decrease. The Danish report shows in 1980 the number of experiments was over 350,000, falling to 330,000 by 1990 and 300,000 in 2000. All of this evidences a long term decline in the number of animal procedures.

Other insights that could be gleaned from the statistics:

  • 16.1% of studies involved the use of genetically altered animals.
  • The most common use of animals was Translational and applied research (51%), followed by Basic Research (37%) and Regulatory use (9%).

We aim to keep our readers abreast of the latest developments in animal statistics worldwide. Keep your eyes out for more stats on the horizon.

Source of Danish statistics.

How to Engage Institutions to Publicly Support Animal Research. The Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting

During their 2016 annual meeting in San Diego, Society for Neuroscience (SfN) held a two-hour session dedicated to public outreach concerning animals in research. The panelists offered different perspectives on communication about essential animal research for the public.  The session opened with remarks by the chair of the SFN’s Animals in Research Committee, Dr. Mar Sanchez, who stated the importance of the role of scientists in raising awareness about animal research.  Sanchez encouraged the audience to immediately take action by signing up to advocate for biomedical research by reaching out to their elected officials.

The first panelist, Kirk Leech, is the Executive Director for the European Animal Research Association. Leech overviewed the current state of opinion about animal research and shared how the UK and other European countries are helping to be more transparent.

He pointed out that although physical attacks by activists have decreased, their tactics have become more complex and influential.  He said that “it is essential to engage with the public, media and policymakers about animal research.” Aim of the panel was to explain how for example in Spain, Belgium and the UK we have sought to use Institutional Openness, – private and public research agreeing to certain principles about how they will seek to improve public understanding of animal research. If the voices of the research community are not heard, the conversation about animal research will continue to be driven by anti-animal research rhetoric.

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Dr. David Jentsch, professor of psychology at Binghamton University, began by insisting that today’s activists remain extreme and sometimes abusive, even though they are legal.  He noted that although they are not bombing cars and breaking into labs, they still are making a very real impact on the scientists they target through campaigns that involve personal targeting and harassment. After overviewing the players in current activist campaigns, and their tactics, he pointed out the results of their activities. These included researchers ending controversial projects, graduate students pursuing alternative pathways, funding not being applied for or lost, and the endless waste of resources being spent on having to respond to frivolous activist campaigns. Jentsch shared his perspective through the lens of a researcher about engaging with the public about work with animals in research and working with your institutions, scientific societies and advocacy groups to implement a proactive campaign.

He says that, “Researchers can, and should, be proactive and plan for public engagement about their work.”  He recommends that the scientific community proactively navigate this reality by planning, finding their own voices, controlling the message, and demanding specific forms of institutional support. He points to examples like Edythe London’s personal and emotional defense of her own research in a LA Times OpEd as an excellent example of transparent and effective advocacy. Additional advice includes preparing in advance for negative criticisms, participating in public communications through blogs, letters, and websites, and forming a group of like-minded individuals at your institution to encourage public statements and protection for researchers. He closed by sharing a solemn voice of support thanking the research community for its research and advocacy.

john-morrison-slides-sfnThe next panelist, Dr. John Morrison,  Director of the California National Primate Research Center, highlighted the outstanding care that nonhuman primates at the seven National Primate Research Centers (NPRC) in the US receive, as well as the significant contributions non-human primates have made in the advances of such diseases as HIV/AIDS, polio, Ebola, and Parkinson’s disease.  Morrison stressed that, “hiding doesn’t work.”  He encouraged the development of strong proactive messages that emphasize the connection to human health and to get this message out as often possible. Some venues for message distribution include giving tours and presentations, using the website and social media, developing press releases, and engaging with all partners. He says, “engage your press office and publicize science as often as possible.”  Morrison shared a cohesive message being shared by the seven NPRCs which includes, “The National Primate Research Centers are a national network of dedicated teams fighting diseases from Alzheimer’s to Zika and improving human health and lives worldwide.” This cohesiveness gives strength to their communications about essential research with non-human primates.

Morrison then shared tips on engaging with several stakeholders:  the home institution, NIH and the scientific community, the public, policymakers, and employees. Tips included:

1) Home Institution:

  • Engage the highest level of leadership in a social setting to present scientific discoveries and their importance to human health and the financial impact of research for the institution.
  • Engage your Press Office and publicize science as often as possible
  • Establish a crisis and issues management protocol
  • Fully integrate into the academics of the home institution
  • Provide tours to campus scientists, administrators, potential collaborators
  • Participate in outreach and development efforts
  • Develop a unified message around science and health

2)  NIH and the scientific community:

  • Maintain open and strong communication with NIH Program Officers and other officials
  • Provide expertise and participate in NIH Workshops
  • Educate the scientific community on animal research
  • Sponsor conferences
  • Work with Professional Societies and their programs on animal research
  • Provide access to expertise for scientific colleagues

3) The public:

  • Open your doors by giving tours
  • Distribute material for lay audience through website, social media, and local media
  • Go into the community and provide presentations

4) Policymakers:

  • Provide invitations for tours to federal and state government officials, academic leaders, leaders of Pharma and Biotech
  • Visit Capitol Hill
  • Engage with NIH and other federal agencies
  • Provide material on animal research

5) Employees:

  • Implement an internal communications program about animal research at your institution
  • Communicate your vision, purpose, core values, key messages to connect the work with animals with the overall institutional goals
  • Create an advocacy program so employees can be advocates for animal research

Morrison emphasized, “In all of these interactions, emphasize the power of animal research to impact human health.”  His talk ended by showing a powerful video of a man with Parkinson’s disease and the medical advancement that gives him the ability to function normally.  Without the deep brain stimulation developed through the nonhuman primate model, this man could not even hold a pencil.

carrie-wolinetz-sfn-slidesThe final panelist, Dr. Carrie Wolinetz, Associate Director for Science Policy and Director of the Office of Science Policy, National Institutes of Health, began her talk with an overview of NIH and related agencies. She also explained NIH’s relationship with Congress and the fact that since they are a public agency, paid for by all taxpayers, they represent the view of the entire public, including those that may oppose animal research.  This representation of all members of the public is what results in things like the September 7th workshop to review its ethical policies and processes for the nonhuman primate research model. She assured the audience that Dr. Francis Collins supports their work with animals.

The NIH has a public statement on their website in support of animal research and will continue to support the scientific community, as well as their public stakeholders.  NIH also offers support for researchers on their website.  Wolinetz ended her talk by encouraging scientists to engage with the public and tie their work with the human condition.  The session concluded with a Q &A session from the participants.  These included:

“How do I make the case for basic research?”

“What support is there for ordinary scientists in communicating about animal research?”

“Are K-12 teachers being engaged?”

Discussions about hosting another panel next year are underway. Ideas for topics to include can be emailed to the Chair of SfN’s Animal Research Committee, Mar Sanchez, mmsanch@emory.edu.

Rise in animals used in research in Spain in 2015

In this post we take a closer look at Spain’s recently published animal research statistics for 2015 (see previous years here). These show that in 2015, there were 858,946 procedures on animals for scientific purposes, up 5% from 2014 (821,570 procedures). The number of animals is likely to be very similar (with only 14,473 procedures on animals which had previously been used in prior research).

Animal Research in Spain in 2014. Click to Enlarge

Animal Research in Spain in 2015. Click to Enlarge

One of the main reasons for this rise is the large increase in the use of birds, mainly chickens, which more than doubled since 2014. Zebrafish, which saw a huge 250% rise in 2014, decreased by 30%. Cephalalopoda (e.g. Octopuses, squid and cuttlefish) almost doubled in number after being included in the 2014 statistics for the first time (in line with the EU Directive).

Animals used in research in Spain in 2015

Most research was on mice, fish, birds and rats

Mice, rats, fish and birds accounted for over 91% of research animals in Spain, roughly the same proportion as other EU countries. Dogs, cats and primates account for less than 0.2% of all research procedures in Spain in 2015; again, similar to other EU countries and to previous years in Spain.

Severity of animal experiments in Spain

The new EU guidelines also require retrospective reporting of animal suffering in experiments. Of the 858,946 procedures, 44.7% were mild, 38.5% were moderate, 8.0% were severe, and 8.7% non-recovery (where the animal is fully anaesthetised before surgery and then never woken up). For more information see Table 3 of the Government statistical release (in Spanish).

Animal Research Trends in Spain

Animal Research Trends in Spain

The number of animals used in testing and research since 2009 has fallen from a little over 1.4 million animals to just over 850,000 in 2015. These older statistics are available on the website of the Ministry for Agriculture.

Other insights that could be gleaned from the statistics:

  • 31.6% of studies involved the use of genetically altered animals.
  • Nearly all animals (~98%) came from within the EU
  • No wild caught primates were used. Of the 290 primates (not to be confused with the number of procedures on primates) 281 were either the grandchildren (F2) or beyond of wild caught animals.
  • The most common use of animals was Basic research (50.5%), followed by Translational and Applied Research (26.3%) and Regulatory use (16.8%).

We aim to keep our readers abreast of the latest developments in animal statistics worldwide. Keep your eyes out for more stats on the horizon.

Source of Spanish statistics: http://www.mapama.gob.es/es/ganaderia/temas/produccion-y-mercados-ganaderos/informedeusodeanimalesen2015_tcm7-436494.pdf

Do you have a passion for explaining science? We need you!

Speaking of Research is a group of like-minded researchers and science communicators. We have flourished over the last 8.5 years thanks to the hard work of a committee that has come together to help each other, as well as fellow researchers and institutions. Despite having a budget of about $200/year, we have come together to build one of the biggest resources about animal research on the internet. We believe that openness about animal research is the best way to win over public and policymakers. But, we need your help to achieve this.

The SR committee is an ever-changing group of around 20 people who are motivated to make a change in the way we talk about animal research. The committee is made up of people from across North America and Europe, but we would also welcome people from further afield to help us understand the animal research environment in other countries.

Committee members often write articles debunking misinformation propagated by animal rights groups [Image by Randall Munroe or XKCD]

Committee members often write articles debunking misinformation propagated by animal rights groups [Image by Randall Munroe or XKCD]

What type of people on the committee?

  • Scientists who use animals in their research – be it fruit flies, mice or monkeys. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Masters student or a tenured professor, your support is valued.
  • Veterinarians who work within animal research facilities.
  • Animal care technicians who work to look after animals in laboratories.
  • Science communicators, particularly those who do media relations or public engagement for an institution conducting animal research or relevant society.

What does the committee do?

  • Writing – this is one of the key jobs of our central committee – ensuring that there is new material on the website (and updating existing pages). People write about their own research, research in the news, debunking misinformation by activists, responding to policy changes and much more. Not a great writer? Some of our best articles are produced by guest authors, but we still need to be the ones to find those people.
  • Social Media – we need people to help put science news on Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels.
  • Sharing news and information. Seen some amazing new medical breakthrough? Information about animal activism?
  • Networking – From individuals and institutions wanting to become more actively involved in animal research outreach, to those targeted by activism, the SR committee works to support scientists and institutions worldwide.
  • Media work – We are often required to give comments to journalists, or occasionally appear on radio and TV. Having numerous people prepared to step up to the plate is always useful. We have worked with committee members to train them in talking to the media. We also put our press releases and produce briefing materials for journalists.
  • Conferences – Speaking of Research members have often spoken about animal research outreach at conferences including Society for Neuroscience and AALAS.

SR member talking about the importance of openness on the BBC.

How can I join the committee?

Contact us! We’d love to hear from you, even if you just have some questions. We ask new members to write an article for the website to show their interest in explaining animal research (we can help advise on topics, as well as provide support in editing and proofing any drafts).

What am I expected to do on the committee?

We do understand that our careers often mean there are periods where we are unable to help, but hope you find  some time to contribute in some manner to Speaking of Research’s goals.

  • Email List – the committee communicates through an email list. While we don’t expect everyone to reply to every email, we do ask that people contribute their knowledge or support occasionally.
  • Blog – We ask every committee member to contribute one article every four months (or to find a colleague who might contribute a guest post). This ensures we have a minimum amount of news on the website (thankfully, some committee members contribute much more). Articles tend to be 400-1500 words, but we are very flexible.
  • Contribute – We hope committee members find other ways of contributing. Some people keep an eye out for new statistics, some people look out for institutional animal research statements, and some people help post on social media. Whatever you can do, we welcome the help.
The committee communicates primarily by email

The committee communicates primarily by email

I’m not ready for the committee, but I still want to help!

We have written extensively on other ways you can help us.

While all our committee are volunteers, we still require a small amount of funding to keep our website going and carry out small outreach activities (we have produced posters for conferences and promoted articles on social media). Donating just €10/£10/$10 is a huge help to our efforts in explaining the important role of animals in medical and veterinary research.

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Yours sincerely

The Speaking of Research committee

SYR: How sheep can help us understand why girls are reaching puberty at younger ages

michelle-bedenbaughThis guest post is the second written by Michelle Bedenbaugh, a Ph.D. student in the Physiology and Pharmacology Department at West Virginia University. Check out her first post on the benefits of using large animal models to study reproduction. It is also part of our Speaking of Your Research series of posts where scientists discuss their own research. In this post, Michelle discusses some of the cells and signaling pathways that are important for controlling the timing of puberty and how the use of sheep as a model is beneficial for this type of research. If you would be willing to write a guest article for Speaking of Research, please contact us here.

For those of you who have been watching the news in the United States over the past 5-10 years, you have probably heard a few discussions about the fact that girls are reaching puberty at younger ages.  In the 1980s, girls normally reached puberty around the age of 13.  In 2010, the average age of girls reaching puberty had dropped to 11 and has since continued to decline.  Reaching puberty at earlier ages is associated with several adverse health outcomes, including polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), metabolic syndrome, obesity, osteoporosis, several reproductive cancers and psychosocial distress.  The public and researchers have pointed fingers at several potential culprits, including an unhealthy diet, chemicals that disrupt the body’s normal hormonal environment, and an individual’s genetic predisposition to disease.  In reality, a combination of factors have probably led to the decrease in the age at which girls reach puberty, but I don’t want get into a discussion about these factors today.  Instead, I want to talk about some of the signaling molecules in the body that these factors may be influencing to affect the initiation of puberty.

As with many processes in the human body, the brain plays a critical role in the control of reproduction and the timing of puberty.  Within a specific area of the brain called the hypothalamus, several populations of neurons (specialized cells in the brain) exist that control reproduction.  The activity of these neurons is influenced by various factors that are communicated from other parts of the body and outside environment to the brain, including nutritional status, concentrations of sex steroids (like estrogen and testosterone), genetics, and many other external factors.  All of these factors tell the brain when an individual has obtained the qualities necessary to successfully reproduce and therefore undergo pubertal maturation.  Gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) neurons found in the hypothalamus are the final step in this chain of communication and are essential for the initiation of puberty.

A GnRH neuron present in the hypothalamus.

A GnRH neuron present in the hypothalamus.

Most of these nutritional, hormonal, genetic and environmental signals are not directly communicated to GnRH neurons.  Instead, they are conveyed through other types of neurons that then relay this information to GnRH neurons which either stimulates or inhibits the release of GnRH.  Because GnRH is a signaling molecule that ultimately stimulates the maturation of male (sperm) and female (egg) gametes, stimulating GnRH in turn stimulates reproductive processes while inhibiting GnRH inhibits reproductive processes.  The perfect balance of stimulatory and inhibitory inputs is needed for GnRH to be released and for puberty to be initiated.  Consequently, if stimulatory inputs signal to increase GnRH prematurely, puberty will occur earlier, which may result in several of the health concerns that were mentioned above later in life, including reproductive cancers and psychosocial distress.  In contrast, if inhibitory inputs block the release of GnRH, puberty will never occur and result in infertility.

My research looks at some of these stimulatory and inhibitory inputs and how they communicate with each other, as well as with GnRH neurons.  Two of the stimulatory signaling molecules that we research are kisspeptin and neurokinin B (funny names, I know).  We also study dynorphin (another funny name), a molecule that inhibits GnRH release.  These three molecules can all individually affect GnRH release and therefore reproduction.  However, the really cool thing about these three molecules are that they are actually present together in a special type of neuron that is only found in one small and highly specific area of the hypothalamus.  Because these neurons contain kisspeptin, neurokinin B, and dynorphin, they are often called KNDy (pronounced “candy”) neurons.  The fact that kisspeptin, neurokinin B, and dynorphin are all present in these KNDy neurons together allows for them to communicate directly and affect each other’s release.  This communication then ultimately affects the release of GnRH.  Before puberty, inhibitory inputs, like dynorphin, dominate and don’t allow for adequate amounts of GnRH to be released to stimulate reproduction.  As an individual matures, stimulatory inputs, like kisspeptin and neurokinin B, begin to outweigh inhibitory inputs, and GnRH can be released in adequate amounts to support reproductive processes.  Below is a figure that summarizes how we think all of this works within the body.  However, there is still a lot that we don’t know about how kisspeptin, neurokinin B and dynorphin interact with each other that is waiting to be discovered!

Hypothesized model for the initiation of puberty. (1) Internal and external factors are communicated to the body. (2) Next, these factors are relayed through various signaling pathways to stimulatory and inhibitory molecules present in neurons located in the hypothalamus. (3) Stimulatory and inhibitory molecules travel to GnRH neurons and affect the release of GnRH. (4) GnRH stimulates reproductive processes that are critical for the initiation of puberty. (5) Once all of the proper conditions are met, reproductive maturity is attained.

Hypothesized model for the initiation of puberty. (1) Internal and external factors are communicated to the body. (2) Next, these factors are relayed through various signaling pathways to stimulatory and inhibitory molecules present in neurons located in the hypothalamus. (3) Stimulatory and inhibitory molecules travel to GnRH neurons and affect the release of GnRH. (4) GnRH stimulates reproductive processes that are critical for the initiation of puberty. (5) Once all of the proper conditions are met, reproductive maturity is attained.

To complete all of these studies, we use sheep as our model.  I know what some of you are thinking.  “How in the world would sheep serve as a good model for how puberty is initiated in humans?  I don’t think I am similar to a sheep at all!”  In fact, sheep are actually an excellent model in which to do this research.  The signaling pathways that affect the release of GnRH in sheep are very similar to the signaling pathways in humans, and in some cases, are even more similar to the human pathways than the pathways present in mice or rats.  In humans and sheep, neurokinin B has only been found to stimulate GnRH release.  However, in rodents, there have been reports of neurokinin B both stimulating and inhibiting GnRH release.  Since neurokinin B is one of the main signaling molecules that we study, using sheep instead of mice or rats is more beneficial for modeling what is occurring in humans.

sheep-in-reproduction-research

Because we have to collect several blood samples from the sheep in order to measure hormone concentrations, having an animal with a larger blood volume is also advantageous.  Several hormones in the body (including GnRH) are released in a pulsatile manner, meaning one minute GnRH concentrations are high and a few minutes later they are low.  Therefore, in order to appropriately measure GnRH, blood samples need to be taken every 10-12 minutes for several hours.  This is not feasible in rodents.  If you took blood samples as frequently in rodents as is possible in sheep, you would risk killing the animal.  Some scientists who use rodents as their research model attempt to get around this issue by taking blood samples less frequently.  However, this means their hormone measurements are less accurate.

These are just a few of the many reasons why we conduct our research in sheep (to learn more about the advantages of using sheep and other large animal models to conduct research involving reproduction, see my previous post).

While most people (including myself) do not look back fondly on our awkward pubertal years, I absolutely love studying the signaling pathways the body uses to determine when it is ready to successfully reproduce.  We have discovered quite a bit over the past few decades concerning how different internal and external factors affect pubertal maturation, but there are still so many unknowns left to be determined.  I look forward to hopefully discovering some of these unknowns and improving our understanding of how puberty is initiated in both humans and livestock species.

Michelle Bedenbaugh

Society for Neuroscience: Session on engaging institutions about animal research

If you are one of the 30,000 or so neuroscientists attending the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) 2016 meeting in San Diego that starts this weekend, then make sure you watch this session on engaging institutions about animal research.

Animals in Research Panel (SfN; Tues, Nov 15, 10am-Noon, CC Room 10):  

How to Engage Institutions to Publicly Support Animal Research; a Top-Down Approach

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Description: Worldwide, researchers are engaging the public to increase the understanding and need for animals in research. However, scientists need research institutions to facilitate greater openness about animal research conducted on campus and to reject the fear of attracting negative attention. This panel will discuss the proven benefits of positive institutional public communication and openness, as well as strategies to engage our institutions to publicly support animal research.

  • Opening Remarks: Committee on Animals in Research Chair, Mar Sanchez, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Emory University)
  • Kirk Leech, (Associate Director, European Animal Research Association –EARA-)
  • David Jentsch, Ph.D. (Professor of Psychology, Binghamton University)
  • John Morrison, Ph.D. (director of the California National Primate Research Center)
  • Carrie Wolinetz, Ph.D. (Associate Director for Science Policy and Director of the Office of Science Policy, National Institutes of Health –NIH-)
  • Q&A session

Separate to this meeting, you should check out Booth 4216 in Exhibit Hall to talk to the Consortium for Public Outreach on Animal Research (@AR_Consortium) of which Speaking of Research is a member.

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