Where it Begins.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while, because the topic is one which seems, on face value, to be fairly black and white, but like most ethical issues, when you start asking the questions, you realise that you’re painting with broad brushstrokes and ignoring the details. And that’s where the devil is, as we know.

Some weeks ago, I read about a company doing neuroscience research by experimenting on cockroaches. It involved attaching a ‘backpack’ consisting of a computer chip and transmitter, onto a live cockroach. Using an app and a mobile phone, a person could then control the cockroach’s left-right movements.

The BBC had picked up the story and was discussing the ethical implications of such an experiment. Now, I’ll admit, when I first read the headline, I thought, ‘well, it’s a cockroach, and we use animals for experimentation all the time.’ But then I read the article, and then I went to the website of the company, and the whole thing began to make my ‘this-isn’t-quite-right’ senses start to tingle. The website details exactly what is involved, but the basics are that the cockroach is submerged in iced water to anaesthetise it, then the backpack is glued onto it. In order to ground the unit, an electrode is poked into the thorax, and then the antennae are clipped, and electrodes inserted into them as well. After a night of recovery to get used to its new headgear, the cockroach can then be plugged in to test its neural activity, and an app can be downloaded to begin to control the left-right movement of the creature.

In the step-by-step instructions, the website certainly goes to great lengths to promote the wellbeing of the cockroach. There are several reminders about ensuring the cockroach remains anaesthetised, and diagrams and photographs for the experimenters to follow, with instructions about how to insert the groundwire so that the cockroach’s oesophagus is not perforated, and a note that the experiment should only be performed on adult cockroaches, because they no longer need to moult. Those behind Backyard Brains are well aware of their critics, and have a page on their site where they discuss the ethical issues raised, and offer explanations of their methods and reasons for the decisions they’ve made. It is obvious that they take their critics seriously, and believe strongly in the benefits of these experiments.

Still, though. I can’t help feeling like it’s not enough. I think perhaps it’s not so much that I have a problem with the science. I think I have a problem with the way they’re promoting this science, and to whom they’re promoting it. Backyard Brains is aimed squarely at young people–in particular, high school students–and the site argues that giving students a head start in science can lead to real breakthroughs. Of course, I completely agree that some young people can achieve absolutely incredible results in the field of science (as well as in other fields). They can have a single-minded passion which really motivates them to solve problems, and they also are in the position where they have a lot of free time, unencumbered by family and work commitments which can prevent older people from devoting time and energy to projects.

But that is some young people. Something like the Roboroach experiment promotes itself as being valuable in helping to understand neuroscience and some of the neural disorders which afflict humans. However, reading over the instructions, I felt as if it was more of a gimmick. The use of the word ‘cyborg’ to describe the cockroach once the ‘backpack’ has been affixed to its carapace is one example. I understand that the gimmick can be what draws young people in, in order to pique their interest and hopefully become more deeply involved in other scientific experiments, but this is an experiment involving a living creature. Is it really OK to dismiss that, in the name of inspiring interest in science from young people? How many students who perform this experiment are really intrigued about possible human applications? How many will really go on to do research into neuroscience? At what point does it become cruel to use live animals in classroom experiments? Are cockroaches deemed acceptable, but would we draw the line at a stick insect? Just because we are not sure how sentience and pain receptors work in some creatures, does that mean we can assume they don’t feel pain or distress?

I realise that experiments on animals have allowed us to advance scientific progress to a greater degree than if we didn’t use them. We expect a lot from our scientists, especially in the sphere of disease prevention or cure. And because we’ve deemed human life to be sacrosanct in this regard, experimentation on humans can only go ahead when the scientists investigating can hold a level of certainty about the side effects and harm for human subjects. However, it’s also dangerous to assume that we can easily determine just how these experiments are affecting the creatures on which they’re performed. Our understanding of how other animals experience distress or discomfort is better than it used to be*, but there is still more to learn. Rather than brushing off concerns about sentience as anthropomorphism, we should constantly be questioning and re-evaluating the ethics of what we do to animals in experiments, and asking those performing the science to do the same.

Of course, there are boards of ethics and mission statements and any number of safeguards to ensure that we are doing the best for the animals we use in experiments, and the scientists and students to whom I’ve spoken and who do this work appear to be genuinely concerned for the welfare of their animal subjects. After all, from a purely pragmatic standpoint, it’s not great if your subjects are always dying on you. And I believe that many of them care for the wellbeing of the animals, simply because the scientists are humans and feel that living things share a connection with each other. Is that anthropomorphism? Possibly. But can we really ask people to be completely objective to the point that it doesn’t matter how these animals feel? If anything, to do so would be ‘bad science’, because side effects are of great significance when it comes to treatment of disease and illness.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Backyard Brains is dismissing the effects of the experiments on the cockroaches. However, I am concerned that they’re making available and promoting scientific experiments to a part of the population which may not have the experience or expertise to adequately ensure the care of the insects involved. Backyard Brains argue that their experiments contribute valuable data to research in neurological disorders. I beg to differ. I’m all for supporting and promoting research into this area, but I think if we are going to encourage young people to get interested and passionate about science, then there are better ways of going about it, and if we are going to experiment on live animals, then those experiments need to be adequately supervised, and undertaken by individuals who fully comprehend the gravity and significance of this work. When we experiment on animals, we are changing aspects of their bodies, their lives, to improve our own. We are using the power we have to experiment on a living creature that does not have the opportunity to give its consent. Such a thing should not be taken lightly.

*this links to a paper where animal cruelty is discussed, and which could be distressing to some.


18 thoughts on “Where it Begins.

  1. “Informed consent” in the US came about largely because of the fact that, not long ago, patients in mental institutions were considered “fair game” because they didn’t have the capacity to object to what the experimenters wanted to do. Also because of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuskegee_syphilis_experiment).

    However, now that we’re living on the “information superhighway”, in recent years there have been issues in the US where a patient (or group of patients) with a rare form of cancer (or whatever other disease), who’s already been told his/her condition is terminal (they *will* die, the only question is when), finds out about a potential new treatment for their disease. They contact their doctor, their congresscritter, the NIH, the FDA, the drug manufacturer and anyone else they can think of, because the patient(s) would really like to try this drug. They’re told “Sorry to disappoint you, but we’re not ready for human clinical trials yet, that’s months/years away.” It’s true that we hold human life to be sacrosanct, while animals are expendable. What I don’t understand is, if the patient already knows he’s going to die, and there’s a potential treatment out there, what’s the harm in giving it to him anyway? The worst that can happen is that the patient dies. So what? That’s not news to the patient. In this country, what the drug companies are really afraid of is litigation. If the patient’s spouse/family decides to sue the drug company for “causing” their loved one’s death, that could be millions in lost revenue for the drug company. I’ve heard of very, very few instances where a drug is given to a particular patient population earlier than expected, for exactly those “compassionate” grounds.

    • Thanks for picking up that missing word! Haha–changes the sense of the post quite a bit 😀

      We have come some way realising that all people have the same basic rights (and indeed in some parts of the world even that is asking a bit much), but it seems that every time we make these broad assumptions about animals having inferior intelligences and that humans are oh so superior, we discover a creature which demonstrates far greater intelligence than we thought it had, and we have to reset the yardstick. I remember reading about the syphilis experiment you linked to, and I was just incredulous.

      I was actually discussing with the Handsome Sidekick the very issue about human trials and people desperate for drugs which might hold the key to either curing their illness, or at least give them some good quality of life. I suppose one of the problems might be that the drug trials often rely on certain criteria, such as the disease only having advanced to some particular stage, etc. I guess if they were to try it on people who were in such dire straights, the data may not be reliable, as they may not live long enough to either display the full benefits of the drug, or indeed the side effects. That’s just a guess… of course, I’m sure I would feel very strongly about having access to some of these medicines, if I or someone I loved were in this position.

      • And now there’s this:


        Apparently it’s perfectly legal here in TX to keep a pregnant woman alive against her will “to protect the viability of the fetus”. Even with a DNR order in place, it’s somehow magically “suspended” if the patient is pregnant. What the state isn’t considering in this case is that Ms. Munoz had been unresponsive for some time when her husband found her; her lips were blue and she was cold. Even if they continue with life support until her child is born–what then? It’s very likely the child will be severely disabled. Who will pay for the costs associated with keeping Ms. Munoz alive until the child is born? Who will pay for the costs associated with raising a special-needs child?

  2. Pingback: Where it Begins. | ugiridharaprasad

  3. I think the angle that you tackle this from – is it right to use this approach to engage young people – is entirely right and not something I would have thought of. At the very least, these students should have some in depth ethics lessons before embarking on projects such as these, to help them decide where they stand and whether to progress further with the topic. Even then, I am not sure that goes far enough.To engage in science such as this separate from ethical debates seems wrong. Do you know if the kids talk about the ethical aspect at all?
    Very interesting post – thanks

    • Thank you for reading!

      From what I can gather, there is some discussion about the ethical aspect, and they do go to lengths to describe exactly what is happening, why they use this particular breed of cockroach, etc. My problem with this is that it’s promoted as an ‘at-home’ experiment (although they do classroom presentations as well) and so there’s no guarantee that it will be supervised. Also, because of the age… I just feel that teenagers may not have the emotional maturity to really grasp the implications. It’s not that they absolutely won’t have it, it’s just that I once was a teenager and I’ve met several others since I became an adult, and there are many areas in which they still need to mature–that’s obvious. They’re still children, and we don’t expect them to be mini-adults.

      I suppose Backyard Brains could argue that this kind of experiment could be a catalyst for promoting emotional growth and separating emotional attachment from scientific work, but I still hold reservations about students doing this kind of thing in their own home. And I still think they dismiss the possible effects on the insects a little too quickly.

    • It’s funny you should write that; when I was discussing it with the Handsome Sidekick, we were joking that I should put a picture of the Borg in the piece 😉

      I think all research like this can have its dark side. Especially when it comes to the brain. Wouldn’t it be a terrifying experience, to not have control of your movements? Yikes.

      • To paraphrase both you and Dominica Malcolm, “Wouldn’t it be a terrifying experience, to not have control of your movements? Yikes!…Especially if you were still aware of what was going on!”

        I’ve been there, multiple times. It’s called having a grand mal seizure. When I was younger it was not uncommon for me to burst into tears the moment the seizure was over. My doctors called it “emotional lability”. That’s an overly clinical way of saying that my seizures were such an emotionally and physically draining experience for me, crying was the only way for me to ease that pain.

  4. @Jennifer R.Ewing: I just read that article. Geez. And the comments. Yikes. I can’t imagine what the Handsome Sidekick would do in this situation, but I agree with you, it’s really hard to know what the effect of the lack of oxygen is going to be on the foetus… it’s also disturbing that an individual’s body is taken out of his/her control by people who are not going to be affected by these decisions. As you point out, this child may be severely disabled, and the doctors who are deciding to keep the foetus alive won’t have to deal with the day-to-day challenges and costs of looking after the child. On the other hand, I can’t imagine how hard it would be to turn off the life support of a pregnant woman, knowing that there is a foetus inside her which might feel terrible pain and discomfort, before it dies, because of that action, you know? I just don’t know.

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