A poll on kitty experimentation

There is an extremely common sort of experiment to understand plasticity of the developing brain. These are important experiments to understand an important phenomenon: the brain does not simply unfold ineluctably to produce a fully functional organ, but actually interacts constantly with its environment to build a functioning organ that is matched to the world it must model and work with. This was one of the very first things I learned as a budding neuroscientist; my first undergraduate research experience was in the lab of Jenny Lund at the University of Washington, where we were given prepared slices of embryonic and infant human brains (the products of abortions, stillbirths, and childhood mortality) and counted dendritic spines in the visual cortex. The brain is constantly remodeling itself, and is especially doing so in young individuals.

Now in those old observations, we weren’t really manipulating either the brain or the environment: you don’t get to do that with human babies! All we were doing was documenting the natural progression of synaptic connection density — which, by the way, declines rapidly as the brain learns and refines. What we could see anatomically is that as young children adapt to their environment, the brain is busily pruning and shifting connections — but what we couldn’t see is what was causing those changes, or what effect those anatomical changes had on visual processing.

For that, you have to tinker. And since you can’t do that with human babies, you have to go to animal models.

And the most common animal models for studying the visual system in humans are mammals: cats (also ferrets, for technical reasons involving some of the pathways). And since we’re interested in the plasticity of the brain in young, developing animals, you can see where this is going.

Neuroscientists do experiments on kittens.


Actually, it sort of does. The Mirror just put up an article decrying kitten experimentation, with lots of quotes from celebrities moaning in horror.

Ricky Gervais: “I am appalled that kittens are being deprived of sight by having their eyelids sewn shut. I thought sickening experiments like these were a thing of the past.”

Why, no, Ricky. These experiments go on right now. It’s how we learn to understand the role of sensory input in shaping the function of the visual cortex.

Michelle Thew of The British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection: “This is unacceptable cruel research. The public will be shocked to learn of publicly-funded experiments where kittens have been subjected to this.”

Of course they will, because your organization will beat the drum of ignorance and lie about their practice and utility.

Dr Ned Buyukmihci, a vet: “The eyelid procedures would have been painful for the kittens. There are substantial ­differences in cats versus humans. There are ­established methods of obtaining information humanely.”

I’ve done experiments like these in the past, and even more substantial surgical manipulations. The investigators know how to do these experiments humanely: we know about anesthesia, for instance, and anything involving surgery on animals is tightly policed by Institutional Review Boards (actually, they tend to be discouraged by IRBs, but that’s a different complaint), which usually have veterinarians serving on them. If Buyukmihci has evidence that these surgeries were done in a way that did not minimize suffering, he should speak up, and the neuroscience community would join him in deploring them.

But these protocols went through Cardiff University’s ethical review process and the Home Office Animals in Science Regulation Unit. There’s no reason to think they were anything less than impeccable.

Ralph Cook, some politician or bureaucrat: “It’s an academic producing a paper which is meaningless and can’t be transferred to humans. Vivisection is completely wrong.”

No, actually, most of this research isn’t just an abstract pursuit of knowledge (although there’s nothing wrong with that, either). This is research that is directly applicable to alleviating human suffering. Treatment of visual system disorders in children is informed directly by these kinds of experiments: they tell us about the sensitivity of the visual system to abnormalities in inputs and long term effects of sustained aberrations. I had a child with ‘lazy eye’ at birth: the doctors (as well as the parents in this case) knew how important it was to correct this problem as quickly as possible, and gave us protocols (tested in cats!) that we could implement until she was old enough to get surgery.

Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s fanatical nutball: “Not only is sewing shut the eyes of kittens ­ethically and morally abhorrent, it is so crude and cruel that it sets science back decades. The kittens will suffer from having their eyes sewn shut and will also experience psychological distress from being reared in the dark. We learn far more about what happens in humans by investing in state-of-the-art research methods that provide reliable data on human experience.”

Scientists don’t do these experiments to get their jollies torturing kittens. These are experiments that advance our understanding of the wiring of the brain.

I agree that there is an amount of suffering involved, and having done similar work, I also know that good investigators do their best to minimize it. My second job as an undergraduate was as an animal care assistant in a surgery, and one of the things I was paid to do was to spend a few hours a day just playing with post-op cats and kittens, and making sure that their housing was clean and comfortable. These were conscientious scientists. They needed to do these experiments, but they also cared about the animals. I was really impressed with their concern and respect for the animals they had to do experiments on.

(By the way, this was an animal surgery that was also used as a training unit for the medical school. One other thing I learned there was that while Ph.D. researchers were people with a deep affection for their subjects, M.D. students were assholes who didn’t give a damn. I hope they learned some humanity later in their careers, because I didn’t see it at the early stage when they were practicing on animals.)

So, after doing a hatchet job on the research and quoting lots of ignorant celebrity wankers and cranky nobodies, the Mirror has a poll. This will be a challenge: you’re going to have to go up against the whole kitty-loving internet to shift this one.

Is the scientific experiment on kittens acceptable?

Yes 7.44%

No 92.56%

Good luck with that one.