Issues Associated with the Use of Animal Experimentation in Behavioral Neuroscience Research

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014
Grace Lee, Judy Illes and Frauke Ohl (eds.)Ethical Issues in Behavioral NeuroscienceCurrent Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences1910.1007/7854_2014_328

Ethical Issues Associated with the Use of Animal Experimentation in Behavioral Neuroscience Research

Frauke Ohl  and Franck Meijboom1, 2

Department Animals in Science & Society, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University Utrecht, Yalelaan 2, PO Box 80.166, 3508 TD Utrecht, The Netherlands

Ethics Institute, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands



Frauke Ohl


This chapter briefly explores whether there are distinct characteristics in the field of Behavioral Neuroscience that demand specific ethical reflection. We argue that although the ethical issues in animal-based Behavioral Neuroscience are not necessarily distinct from those in other research disciplines using animal experimentation, this field of endeavor makes a number of specific, ethically relevant, questions more explicit and, as a result, may expose to discussion a series of ethical issues that have relevance beyond this field of science. We suggest that innovative research, by its very definition, demands out-of-the-box thinking. At the same time, standardization of animal models and test procedures for the sake of comparability across experiments inhibits the potential and willingness to leave well-established tracks of thinking, and leaves us wondering how open minded research is and whether it is the researcher’s established perspective that drives the research rather than the research that drives the researcher’s perspective. The chapter finishes by introducing subsequent chapters of this book volume on Ethical Issues in Behavioral Neuroscience.

Animal behaviorTranslational valueAnimal ethicsAnimal model

1 Reasons for Reflection?

The first part of this book on Ethics in Behavioral Neuroscience explores the question of whether it is worthwhile, or even necessary, to reflect specifically on animal experimentation in Behavioral Neurosciences in extension of more general considerations on Animal Ethics in the broader sense. Are there distinct characteristics in this field of research that demand specific ethical reflection ?

Of course, there is an obligation to reflect on the use of animals as models in Behavioral Neuroscience. But, research on animals has already triggered considerable attention during the last decades, exploring whether it may be justifiable to use animals for experiments at all and, if so, how to weigh the costs of such use against its benefits (e.g. Singer 1975; Van Zutphen et al. 1993; Brom 2002; Nuffield 2005) and these same questions hold for other areas of research and are not unique to the field of Behavioral Neuroscience.

More recently however, Neuroethics has emerged as a distinct field of applied ethics within the philosophy of neuroscience (Stefansson 2007; Illes and Sahakian 2011). Neuroethics deals with a wide range of questions related both to the ethical implications of practical experimentation in neuroscience and the application of the results of such neuroscientific research as well as, in turn, the consequences of neuroscience for ethics (cf. Roskies 2002; Buller 2014). In practice however, it appears that, to date, these discussions have mainly focused on humans—as for example, discussions on the moral rights and wrongs of the enhancement of brain function, or questions related to the concept of free will and moral agency. Thus, although Behavioral Neuroscience does raise specific ethical questions in relation to experimental animal research, the attention of neuroethicists has not, at least to this point, been specifically concerned with this wider context of the ethics of animal experimentation in neuroscience.

Yet there are very specific issues which are raised by the use of animal experiments in this particular area of neuroscience; it is because of those specific aspects, which lie in the interactions between the fields of animal ethics and neuroethics, that we consider it relevant to dedicate a section of the book to the ethical issues of animal-based research in Behavioral Neuroscience. Alongside the more basic questions of animal ethics, a research field that is often dependent on modeling distinct mental capacities and behavioral responses in animals, may have specific implications on considerations on the moral status of animals . Thus, the very criteria that lead us to judge some animal a valid research model in Behavioral Neuroscience are pretty much the same as we would use to grant animals moral consideration for their own sake, which inevitably leads to some conflict in terms of the acceptability of their use for experiments.

Therefore, we argue that although the ethical issues in animal-based Behavioral Neuroscience are not necessarily distinct from those in other research disciplines using animal experimentation, this field of endeavor makes a number of specific, ethically relevant, questions more explicit and, as a result, may expose to discussion a series of ethical issues that have relevance beyond this field of science.

In addition to the conflict which may result from the fact that the most valid animal models may also be those which we might consider, from those same characteristics, as having the highest claim to be worthy of specific moral consideration, other questions may, for example, be related to the predictive power of specific animal models and the degree to which results gained on those models may be truly translated to other systems or species (including humans) (Rollin and Rollin 2014). How should we deal with uncertainties regarding the predictive and construct validity of given (animal) models (cf. Geyer and Markou 1995)? How much research is needed before it is justified to move from work on animals to take the step into (pre)clinical trials? And finally: how can we balance the potential benefit of using animal models that might have higher mental capacities (thus enhancing possible translational value to humans) against the cost that such higher mental capacities may imply greater suffering as the result of experimental manipulations?

This chapter briefly introduces ethical questions raising from animal-based Behavioral Neuroscience, each of which will be developed in more detail in the subsequent chapters of this section.

2 The Moral Status of Animals as a Start of Ethical Concerns About Their Use in Experiments

The use of animals in experimental research in general has raised many concerns over the years. While perhaps earliest concerns about experimentation involving live animals arose in the UK in the nineteenth century (Franco 2013), debate about the moral status of animals is not restricted to Europe, but is nowadays of concern in many countries including the US, Australia and Asian countries (cf. Bovenkerk 2012; Linzey 2014; Nuffield Council 2005). The origin of these discussions lies in the recognition of animals as moral subjects toward which we can have moral duties (Warren 1997). A significant number of ethicists concede that animals have some moral value that is independent of their use by humans. However, there is a diversity of arguments that underlie the recognition of this moral standing of animals. Some start in the recognition of animals as living beings that have a good of their own. This is based on the idea that animals develop, maintain their life, and can adapt successfully to their environment. As a consequence, they have inherent worth as animals (Taylor 1986). Others argue for the moral considerability of animals by virtue of their being able to feel (e.g. Rollin 2011)

It is beyond the scope of this chapter fully to elaborate on the diversity of views that have characterized the debate in the past few decades (Callicott 1980; Carruthers 1992; DeGrazia 1996; Midgley 1983; Korsgaard 2005; Nussbaum 2006; Regan 2004; Rollin 1981; Rowlands 2002; Singer 1995)—and these arguments are rehearsed in greater detail in later by Bovenkerk and Kaldewaij (this volume) and Vieira de Castro and Olsson (this volume). However, both within the field of animal ethics and in formal regulations on the use of animals in research there is a consensus that we have valid and sufficient reasons to consider animals as legitimate objects of our moral concern (cf. De Cock Buning et al. 2009 ; EU 2010).

In a nutshell, such recognition implies that animals should be taken into account in our moral reasoning for their own sake. In animal research the health and welfare of animals is of course taken into account, because compromise of either state may frustrate the research or influence the results in some way. However, speaking about animals as moral subjects implies a further step: if animals are acknowledged to be worthy of consideration and significant entities in their own right, we have direct moral reasons to ensure that our actions take account of their interests as well as our own. How this consideration can be translated into practice is not always immediately clear. Some argue that, as a consequence, any type of animal research is unacceptable (Regan 2004). Others stress that there are also legitimate ethical positions that aim to take the interests or value of animals seriously, yet do not exclude the option that using animals for research can morally be justified (cf. Rollin and Kessel 1990; and see Rollin, this volume; Vieira de Castro and Olsson, this volume). This implies that, on the one hand, using animals is not something that is to be rejected by principle; on the other hand, although animals continue to be used, such use demands a careful consideration.

Frequently, such consideration is based on an analysis of the comparative costs (i.e., harm to individual animals) and benefits (see again Vieira de Castro and Olsson, this volume). Determining the moral justification of animal research in terms of such cost–benefit analysis, in effect gives particular emphasis to two central questions: does the expected result of the experiment or project outweigh the potential suffering of the animals; and is the experiment being performed in the best possible way with regard to the principles of Replacement, Reduction and Refinement (Russel and Burch 1959). Such an evaluation process implies that the ethical justification of animal experiments demands that there shall be specific benefits as a result of any experiment that are considered important enough to outweigh the costs for the animal. In general, the benefit of using animals in experiments is argued in terms of its contribution towards reduction of suffering in humans as an immediate or ultimate aim. This holds equally for experimental animal research in Behavioral Neuroscience.

The majority of such experiments is aimed, if sometimes indirectly, at gaining knowledge about the executive function of the brain. Most commonly, it is the dysfunctioning of particular processes that is of especial interest, because some specific dysfunction of the CNS underlies a variety of disorders that can have a severe impact on (human) quality of life . Since many ethical frameworks stress that we have a duty to take action in the face of human suffering, there is a moral imperative to perform some form of research in this field. Having accepted such duty to care for the health and wellbeing of humans, however, there is no automatic logical presumption that animals have to be used or that use of animals is automatically justified. Therefore, an important aspect of the ethical justification of animal experimentation is discussion both of the need to use animals at all and on the relevance of animal models in research (to ensure that animals used genuinely do provide appropriate models for human systems or disorders, rather than simply mimicking symptoms but in an unrelated way). We should, therefore, take a closer look at the validity of the animal models used in this field of research, and their relevance for transference of results to other systems and species.