A word about animal research and animal rights

Animal research is a controversial topic in some circles.

ucla-van-on-fireAs some of you may know already, a UCLA group has recently banded together to counter-protest the fear-mongering tactics used by animal rights activists. Before UCLA Pro-Test became a reality, researchers on campus would hide away when on campus demonstration came our way. No more.

Dr. David Jentsch, who was one of my UCLA advisors, had his car burned and his work, and life, threatened by one of the more extreme, terrorist, animal-rights groups. I’m all for debate, but blowing up cars makes you lose your place at the table as far as I’m concerned.

So what are the animal-rights arguments?

Animal rights groups claim that animal research is simply sadistic and that it does not benefit us at all.

The notion that animal researchers enjoy hurting animals is so wrong as to be insulting. I’ve conducted animal research myself and know dozens of others who have. Not one of us enjoys hurting animals and we do our best to conduct everything in ways that minimize any discomfort to the animals. Additionally, government regulations regarding animal welfare in research are very strict and highly regulated. Research involving animals is always done while considering its necessity and weighing alternative options (like using cells, tissue, computer models, etc.).

The thought that animal research doesn’t benefit us is naive at best, but more likely purposefully misleading. Here’s a small, partial, list of advances that were made possible through animal research:

  1. Penicillin (mice)
  2. Insulin (dogs, mice, rabbits)
  3. Anesthetics (rats, rabbits, dogs)
  4. Polio Vaccine (mice, monkeys)
  5. Heart transplants (dogs)
  6. Meningitis Vaccine (mice)
  7. Cervical Cancer Vaccine (rabbits, cancer)
  8. Gene therapy for Muscular Dystrophy and Cystic Fibrosis (mice).
  9. Techniques such as bypass surgery, joint replacement, carcinogen screening & blood transfusions have all been developed & improved using animals

Now if anyone wants to claim that none of the above have significantly improved, or indeed saved, human lives, I’m ready for the debate.

Alternatives to animal testing for drug safety come to the U.S.

Here at A3 we’re not new to the animal research debate but we don’t feel as if we’re on the front lines either, especially after working along side researchers who get death threats, dangerous mailings, and Molotov cocktails thrown at their cars (see here for other article on animal research). Still, I know that my own personal experience and knowledge allow me to understand that at least for now, research using live animals is necessary in some contexts (like when we study actual behavior) but that technology might offer alternatives in others.

An article in the journal Nature Medicine chronicles recent efforts by governmental agencies, pharmaceutical companies, and advocacy groups are pushing forward with the idea of computer databases that will allow pharmaceutical companies to assess the toxicity of new products early in the development process. Continue reading “Alternatives to animal testing for drug safety come to the U.S.”

Obesity, drug addiction, and dopamine

Eating junk-food can be addictive, and apparently, it causes brain changes that look eerily similar to drug addiction. That’s the message not only from the rapidly fattening waistlines of Americans everywhere, but also from the Johnson and Kenny labs at the Scripps Institute.

Food and drug addiction

The idea that obesity is caused by a compulsive pattern of eating, and that there could be a similarity between such compulsive eating and drug addiction isn’t super new. In fact, Dr. Volkow from NIDA seemed to make research into this association her goal when taking  the helm of the addiction research kingdom.

When you think about it, the notion isn’t far-fetched: Drug addicts continue to take drugs, in increasing amounts, even though they’d often like to stop (at some point) and in the face of negative consequences and the common loss of other important life functions (like family, work, etc.). Obese individuals are quite the same, eating more and more food regardless of their desire to adopt a healthier diet and in-spite of ridicule, low self-esteem, and decreased functioning that often accompanies extreme weight gain.

The research by Johnson and Kenny examined whether exposure to the kind of high-fat, super high-calorie foods that floods the junk-food market are responsible for creating food-addicts in a similar way to drugs that alter the brain in ways that make stopping more difficult.

Dopamine, reward, and junk-food

The study took three groups of rats and gave them either the regular chow diet lab animals are used to or the worse kind of birthday party food: bacon, sausage, cheesecake, pound cake, frosting and chocolate. You can imagine the party going on in the rat cages that got to eat that! Of the two groups that got to eat the crazy-fat food, one had unlimited access while the other got to binge for only one hour a day.

The bottom line: Only the rats that got unlimited access to the fat-party food developed compulsive eating habits that resulted in roughly twice the weight gain of the other two groups and the ability to continue eating even in the face of signals for punishment (a light that they were trained to associate with shocks).

When the researchers looked deeper, they found that the brains of these rats suffered a significant reduction in the density of a specific kind of dopamine receptor (D2) in a brain part known as the striatum, the same kind of reduction common in drug addicted people and obese individuals. This receptor type is often thought to be important for regulation of impulses, both physical and otherwise. It therefore makes sense that losing this type of function would cause uncontrollable eating or drug taking.

Are drug- and food-addictions the same?

While this research isn’t saying that compulsive eating, or obesity, are the same as drug addiction, it does strongly suggest that there are common mechanisms in both. More importantly, it reveals a common process that unfolds when over-exposure to the reward, in this case food, occurs. This tells us that there can likely be common pathways to these different addictive disorders, though whether any specific person ended up a food- or drug-addict because of this kind of process is still an open question. I wonder if we’ll see something like this with sex addiction soon…

Citation:

Johnson and Kenny (2010) Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. Nature neuroscience, 13, 635-641.

Like advancements in medical care and science? Then support animal research

There was a Pro-Test for Science rally on the UCLA Campus today.  The goal of the rally was to spread awareness about the utility of animal-research and to help combat extremists and prove to the community and world that the ethical use of animals for biomedical research is absolutely vital to the progress and success of advancements in science.

Many of the treatments that we discuss on this site are available because of extensive research with animals. In fact, many scientific discoveries have been possible largely because animal research is an available tool for researchers. Immunizations, medical treatments for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes treatments have all been advanced greatly through the use of biomedical research with animals. Of course, great care is always taken to ensure humane treatment of the animals used.  Animals prove a vital part of advancements in medicine, genetics and other research.

Biomedical scientists endure many trials in order to become experts in the type of research techniques we’re talking about here, including extensive schooling, years of training and of course many thousands of hours spent in a lab, all for the benefit of humanity.  They should not have to additionally endure the harassment of extremists and fear for their safety and the safety of their loved ones who often are caught in the middle.

Debate is healthy; discussion is good. But the harassment and terrorizing of researchers must stop if we’re to consider ourselves an open, educated, society. All biomedical researchers want is to better society by finding cures for the many things that plague our world today, so what everyone should really be doing is thanking them.

Co-authored by Jamie Felzer

Another short word on animal research – Civility, debate, and education

As many of you know, I’m in support of animal research as long as it’s conducted ethically and with concern for the animals’ well-being. That being said, it would be an understatement to announce that there are others who disagree. All well and good as long as people are civilized.

I’ve already written about this topic a bit on here, but I want to point everyone to a great site that focuses specifically on this aspect of research. I think that information and education are important in debate and I hope that people will use this resource.

There will actually be a debate on the topic on the UCLA campus though, as usual, animal extremists have once again betrayed us all by issuing threats and therefore making the event closed to the UCLA community. In a move reminiscent of Orwellian politics, these groups may have realized that open debate will uncover just how dogmatic, extreme, and unnecessary they are and further marginalize them (if that’s possible).

If you are a UCLA student, staff, or faculty member, I urge you to attend.

Social anxiety and drugs: A lesson about addiction from monkeys.

If you ever doubted the idea that monkeys are über similar to humans, read this:

A number of researchers at Wake Forest University school of Monkeys do love their bananas!Medicine looked at the social organization in 4 groups of monkeys. They then took either a dominant or subordinate monkey and put it in a cage next to a group of unfamiliar monkeys. The monkeys couldn’t hurt each other, but they could yell and scream, which they did, creating an emotionally stressful situation for the lone monkey.

After this stressful event, the researchers gave the monkey a chance to relax, human style: They were brought back to their normal housing and allowed to pull either on a lever that gave them food, or a lever that gave them a dose of cocaine. Want to guess what happened?

The subordinate monkeys were giving themselves a lot more cocaine than they had been before the stressful event, while the dominant monkeys were giving themselves less.

Brain scans during the event itself showed that the dominant monkeys showed increased activation in the brain’s pleasure regions but the subordinate monkeys showed less activation in stress and anxiety management areas. Sounds like a typical high-school bullying scene, the dominant monkeys were actually enjoying the fight! It was the socially inferior monkeys that were becoming stressed out.

What this teaches about addiction

The study supports the idea that stress can increase the tendency to do drugs, especially in those that are less able to protect against it.

The researchers caution that in humans, there are many more stressors than social rank. That’s definitely true, but try telling that to a high-school student…

Drug use memories and relapse: Can medication provide addiction help?

About a year ago, while sitting in a lecture on learning and memory, the idea that certain drugs can affect the emotional responses to memory long after the memory itself has been formed came up. As someone interested in addiction research, the implication for treatment immediately came up in my head:

Could we reduce the effect of triggers by giving people a pill?

In one word – Yes! But, the answer is not, in fact, that simple. Even in the studies already done in PTSD patients, the memories have to be re-triggered and the drug given at exactly the right time to be effective. In fact, in humans, some of the best work has been done in PTSD patients immediately after the traumatic event.

Addiction help through relapse prevention

Still, a recent study in animals suggests that the theory is sound. By interfering with the activity of a neurotransmitter important in the formation of memories, researchers were able to stop animals trained to self-administer cocaine from doing so. The animals, which had been trained to push a lever for cocaine when a light went on, reduced, or even stopped responding after a single dose of a substance that blocked memory formation. Essentially, the researchers prevented the animals from relapse. Again, this only worked if the drug was given while the light (as in the drug-trigger) was presented at the same time.

More recent studies, using repeated doses of the drug propranolol, have been shown to have an even more promising effect. Check out my coverage of that research here.

Given the powerful role of triggers in relapse, this avenue of research has some promising possibilities for future treatment of drug addiction.