Ethics of animal research

monkey-3512996_1280A few months ago, we posted about how we could use animals for research.  Today we are looking at the ethics surrounding the decision to conduct research using nonhuman animals. Most students can reel off the ethics involved in conducting research on humans (informed consent, lack of harm, right to withdraw, privacy, etc.) but when we talk about the ethics of conducting research using nonhuman animals as proxies for humans, they are less clear. Often the argument gets stuck at the level of “It’s OK for medical research, but not for cosmetics.”  This is not good enough for an understanding of the complexities (nor for an exam answer).  For students that wish to argue that conducting research on nonhuman animals in order to avoid causing pain or distress to humans can never be ethical, point out that this is a worthy philosophical question, and could even be a counter-argument in a psychology debate on the topic, but again, it cannot constitute the main argument of an exam essay on ethics.

The APA,  BPS and Australian government publish guidelines for conducting nonhuman animal research ethically. What emerges from the guidelines are the ‘3 Rs’ of animal research:

  • Replace animals with other alternatives – such as computer simulations, use of lesser species (such as single‐cell amoebae and nematode worms),  use micro-dosing, CRISPR DNA editing, or human cell cultures – known more colloquially as ‘patient in a dish’ or ‘body on a chip’.  But animals are used to generate new hypotheses, so CRISPR editing was tried out on animals first, as was stem cell research. 
  • Reduce the number of individual animals used, by using data from other researchers, or by repeated micros-sampling on one animal in a repeated measures design.
  • Refine procedures to minimise suffering, by using appropriate anaesthetics and painkillers, and training animals to cooperate with procedures to minimise any distress. Imaginative research, where faecal matter is analysed to investigate stress levels, rather than drawing blood from an obviously stressed animal, has a part to play here.

In Psychology Sorted Book 1, we provide summaries of studies by Xu et al. (2015) and Stanton et al. (2015) which show how nonhuman animals may be used more ethically, to contrast with others such as Barr et al. (2004) and Weaver et al. (2004) which cause more stress to the animals used. These will help to keep your students more closely focused on the complexities of whether and how we should use nonhuman animals in psychological research.

Social networks are good for your health.

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One of the options in IB Diploma Psychology is Health – how to stay healthy, the relationship between biology, cognition and health, and of course, how social factors affect our health. More and more psychologists are concluding that social support is one of the main factors in maintaining good mental and physical health.

A recent longitudinal study conducted into the effect of work stress on health found that men with pre-existing diseases like heart disease, stroke or diabetes who also had stressful jobs with little control over their workload were at a much higher risk of mortality. (Interestingly, there was no similar relationship found between stress at work, heart conditions and early death in women – maybe female social networks are more protective?)

The Guardian summarised these results: “Men…who experienced job strain had a 68% greater risk of premature death than men in more manageable jobs. A greater risk remained even when the men exercised, controlled their weight and blood pressure, and did not smoke.”  It is therefore no use telling men under stress  who have a pre-existing heart condition to get out and exercise more and not smoke, unless we also provide social support, teach positive coping mechanisms, and encourage employers to provide more flexible working hours.

This would provide a good introduction to the Determinants of Health section of the Health option.  In Psychology Sorted Book 2, we summarise Haslam et al’s study into the tendency to underestimate the role of social factors in ill-health, and to also underestimate the ability of social support to keep us healthy. So, be social and stay healthy!