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Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is the goal of modern biomedical research and how does it help scientists and the general public?
A: The goal of biomedical research is to improve human health, and one important way to achieve that goal is through the use of animal models of human diseases and normal human function. This important research helps us to understand how biological systems work, organisms function, develop, how are they organized, and, from the neuroscience perspective, the brain mechanisms that control our behavior, emotions and cognition. With the goal of improving human health, biomedical research also helps understand the mechanisms leading to human diseases and find treatments and cures that will improve quality of life.
Q: Why is animal research important?
A: Nearly every major medical advance in the last century was made possible by carefully regulated, humane animal research and it promises to be essential for progress in the future. Scientists study similarities between animals and humans, replicate conditions in the lab that help better understand how the brain works, and can uncover mechanisms of healthy function and disease by working with several models simultaneously. Discoveries made through this research are leading to advancements in diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, Ebola and microcephaly caused by Zika virus. Animal research has also led to the development of brain-controlled prosthetic devices providing paralyzed people regained use of the arms and legs, and the ability to walk and feel their bodies again, and is helping understand psychiatric disorders. Americans for Medical Progress and the Foundation for Biomedical Research both track medical advances from animal research.
Q: How are animals used in research?
A: Animals are used to understand the causes of diseases and to develop and test treatments and therapies that may affect the entire body—scenarios that cannot usually be replicated with alternative methods like computer models, or studied in humans. In Neuroscience, animals are used to study basic brain biological functions, behavioral and cognitive processes, and to develop and test therapies and drug treatments, among many other important topics and applications.
Q: How can studying brain disease in animals help?
A: Animal models, including nonhuman primates, are essential to understanding how the healthy as well as the diseased human brain functions. By gaining an understanding of how a healthy brain functions, scientists are better able to uncover where the underlying causes of disease, leading to new research pathways that ultimately may result in treatments for disease. Studying brain disease in animals like mice and monkeys can help us understand the nature and mechanisms of disease and design specific interventions that can work to change its course. For example, the use of animal models has led to important discoveries related to many neurological and psychiatric conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and paralysis.
Q: What are some examples of the benefits of research using nonhuman primates?
A: Research with rhesus monkeys enables neuroscientists to understand the brain’s connection to movement and is offering hope to those who are paralyzed or have lost limbs through amputation. This advance is possible because of brain-machine interfaces (BMI), small brain implants that direct a mechanical device to move a prosthetic arm, for example.
Research using macaque monkeys is also currently identifying new ways to treat Huntington’s disease, a fatal, rare, hereditary disorder for which there is no current treatment. Monkeys provide a unique way to study this neurodegenerative disease, because they have similar motor patterns, brain anatomy and developmental processes as humans. The studies have resulted in a critical animal model for treating and preventing Huntington’s disease that could not be achieved using other research approaches.
Additionally, cutting-edge genetic technology is providing ways to alter the genetic code of monkeys by introducing gene mutations associated with diseases like autism, to understand the mechanisms and potential treatments for this brain development disorder. These nonhuman primate transgenic models of autism will allow researchers to study this disorder in animals with advanced cognition and social processing that closely resemble that of humans.
Q: What types of animals are used in research?
A: A wide range of animals contribute to medical discoveries. From complex primates such as monkeys, to animals such as mice, rats, birds, fruit flies, worms, and sea slugs, many types of animals are used, each for a different type of research. For example, fruit flies are commonly used to study genetics because their genetic material can be easily modified and they breed very quickly. Small worms are studied to study the basic development of the nervous system. A sea slug called Aplysia was used for Nobel Prize-winning research on learning and memory.
Q: What animal is used the most in research?
A: The animal model most commonly used in research are rats and mice. According to the Foundation for Biomedical Research, about 95% of all laboratory animals are rats and mice. Roughly one-half of one percent of animals used in research are nonhuman primates.
Q: How do scientists decide when to use animals in their research?
A: Scientists carefully plan and decide what experiment will best answer each specific research question. Computer modeling, cell culture, or non-invasive brain imaging are sometimes the best methods, but it is often necessary to conduct research using animals, including nonhuman primates, to be able to answer to complex questions or when studying higher behavioral or cognitive processes. Scientists continually try to find a balance between obtaining the right answer to the research or medical question and avoiding or limiting the use of animals in their research. Apart from this commitment for the responsible and compassionate use of animals in research, which is part of the researchers’ own ethical standards, there are strict federal, state and institutional regulations in place to approve and monitor the use of every single animal. Thus, scientists have to justify why the chosen animal is the appropriate model for the research question when seeking approval to use animals in their research.
Q: Are there questions researchers must address to gain permission to use an animal in their research?
A: Researchers must address several specific questions in their study plan, including:
- Will the experiment advance scientific knowledge?
- Why is the selected animal species necessary for the experiment?
- How will the animal be used during the experiment?
- Why can’t the research be done without animals, using alternative approaches such as computer modeling?
- How many animals are needed, and why?
Q: What are the guidelines for animal research?
A: A rigorous set of federal, state and institutional regulations, as well as community review, combine to protect the welfare of animals used in research. Scientists involved with animal research take very seriously their commitment to use animals sensitively, appropriately, and humanely, with as few animals as possible to achieve reliable results, and considering first whether there are alternative approaches available, such as computer modeling. Animal research must follow humane guidelines established through scientific and regulatory processes. Whenever possible, scientists strive to replace animals with other research methods, reduce the number of animals used whenever scientifically justifiable, and continuously refine experimental procedures to improve animal welfare.
This is not just part of the scientific community’s ethical standards, but it is also central to the integrity of the scientific outcomes, and to the strict regulations set up by oversight agencies. Those regulations are embraced by researchers and institutions using nonhuman primates in research. Multiple agencies provide oversight to ensure the humane treatment of animals in research, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and federal law such as the Animal Welfare Act. Further, facility-specific Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees comprising veterinarians, and members of the public, in addition to researchers, review, approve and oversee every research study involving animal models, including laboratory inspections. In addition, an independent, non-governmental organization, the American Association for the Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care accredits and oversees many facilities conducting animal research.
Q: Is there an organization that oversees animal research?
A: Each facility that conducts animal research and receives federal funding is overseen by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). IACUCs ensure that all research at the institution complies with federal guidelines, and that studies meet any additional institutional guidelines. Every experiment is approved by this site-specific committee, which includes scientists, veterinarians, statisticians, and members of the local community. In addition, facilities that do not receive federal funds may elect to voluntarily have an IACUC. Please also review the previous question & answer, “What are the guidelines for animal research?”
Institutions can also opt into voluntary programs. One example is the Association for Assessment & Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC) a private, nonprofit organization that promotes the humane treatment of animals in science and certifies research facilities as adhering to AAALAC’s standards of responsible research and animal care.
Q: What determines the guidelines for animal research in the U.S.?
A: The guidelines for animal care and use are set by federal laws enforced by different governmental agencies. Guidelines include: the Animal Welfare Act; the Policy of Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals; the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals. In addition, IACUCs thoroughly review, critique, and approve all federally-funded studies involving animals before any experiments can be done.
Q: How does animal research benefit animals?
A: Animal research has led to vaccines, cancer treatments, heart and hyperthyroid treatments, anxiety treatments, and many other interventions that are improving and extending the lives of cats, dogs, and other animals.
Visit these resources for more on animal research:
- BrainFacts.org: http://www.brainfacts.org/about-neuroscience/animals-in-research/success-stories/
- Foundation for Biomedical Research: https://fbresearch.org/biomedical-research/faq/
- American Society of Primatologists: https://www.asp.org/research/faqs/faq.cfm
- National Primate Research Centers: http://nprcresearch.org/primate/
- California National Primate Center: www.cnprc.ucdavis.edu/about-us/faq-cnprc/
- Oregon National Primate Center: www.ohsu.edu/xd/research/centers-institutes/onprc/caring/faq/