Animal Aid

CLOSE UP ON NEUROLOGICAL RESEARCH - The fundamental flaw

Kathy Archibald looks at animal-based neurological research and shows how animal research into diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's is both callous and wasteful.

Neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's Disease are uniquely human, with no natural equivalents in animals. Even researchers themselves admit that 'there is no successful animal model of Alzheimer's Disease'. Artificially-created models will not reveal why the brain cells die, and therefore will not contribute to stopping the disease process.

Nevertheless, non-humans are used extensively in researching such disorders. Defects are created artificially in an attempt to mimic aspects of the human disease. Methods used are particularly callous and primitive. Open-skull surgery is performed on primates, during which they are injected with toxic chemicals (often MPTP, a by-product of synthetic heroin) that produce Parkinson-like effects such as tremor and loss of control of movement. Rats and mice are genetically manipulated to possess human genes associated with Alzheimer's disease, and then tested for memory failure in the medieval-like barbarity of 'the forced-swim test'. Avoidance of drowning depends on the ability to remember the way through a water-maze.

Species differences

Neurological research is currently much in the news following Cambridge University's high-profile proposal to build a huge new primate facility to conduct more research of this type on marmosets and other monkeys - exactly the kind of experiments exposed by the BUAV in their recent undercover investigation at Cambridge University.

Yet such research has never yielded any knowledge of value or relevance to the human diseases in question. Nor is it likely to, since the 'models' are fundamentally flawed. For example, Parkinson's Disease in people gets progressively worse, whereas MPTP-treated marmosets gradually recover. And it seems so obvious that the most distressing symptoms of neurological diseases - the confusion, speech impairment, depression and delusions - are simply not measurable in non-humans. Moreover, animal experiments often confuse and delay our understanding of the real human problem, thus causing patients to suffer unnecessarily. Treatments developed in monkeys for neurological illnesses may well turn out to be harmful, and even if they are merely ineffective, they will have wasted time, effort, money and lives.

Humane research

Meanwhile, everything useful that has been learned about Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other neurological conditions has been obtained from studying people. The Cambridge Brain Bank, for example, compares healthy human brain tissue with that from patients who suffered from one of these conditions and who generously donated their organs after death. There is much knowledge, too, to be gained from living patients - sophisticated new scanning techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) enable Alzheimer's plaques, for example, to be visualised in conscious patients.

Epidemiological studies of affected versus non-affected people and their relatives have highlighted many links to particular genes and particular risk factors. These include a high fat/cholesterol diet, smoking, pesticide exposure for Parkinson's Disease; and low levels of vitamin B12, folic acid and oestrogen in Alzheimer's Disease. There are interesting indications that drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen may be able to delay or even reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer's in susceptible people. It seems that anti-oxidants such as vitamins A, C and E (abundant in fruit and vegetables) also help to prevent both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, in addition to their well-known protection against heart disease and cancer.

This type of knowledge is invaluable in advancing our understanding of what may contribute to these conditions - and how they may be avoided. Such studies deserve far greater attention and investment.

Far from wishing to obstruct progress, those who oppose the Cambridge University proposals for a new laboratory know that it is a serious diversion from truly productive human-based research. Indeed, we would welcome a centre of excellence in clinical neurological research - at Cambridge or anywhere else. It's a national disgrace that the university (and the government) should consider spending millions of pounds on torturing monkeys, when hospitals do not have the staff or equipment to treat their patients.

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