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Editorial: New Science Demands Stronger Protections

Ayumu lives in Kyoto, Japan. At just 7 years of age, he made quite a name for himself. He sidled up to a computer at Kyoto University. On the screen, the numbers 1 through 9 appeared in random order. He touched each number in sequence as he had been taught to do. The numbers then appeared in new positions, and again, Ayumu touched each one in the correct numerical sequence. But then things got harder. The newly scrambled numbers appeared again, but only for a fraction of a second before being replaced by blank squares, and Ayumu had to remember where the numbers had been. He still touched the squares where the numbers had been in exactly the right order. He did it over and over again, with amazing accuracy.

Researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Ph.D., then pitted Ayumu against university students several times his age. Ayumu’s memory was far more accurate than the students’. Then British memory champion Ben Pridmore, a 30-year-old accountant from Derby who can memorize the order of a shuffled pack of cards in 30 seconds, took his turn against Ayumu. He was no match. In fact, no human was a match for Ayumu. Ayumu is a chimpanzee. For some evolutionary reason, chimpanzees have developed an extremely acute short-term memory, far beyond that with which humans are equipped.

Biologists have come to recognize that animals—even those we think of as humble—have many capabilities that are greater than we had appreciated. Squids decipher the colored communication patterns that radiate up and down each others’ sides. Dogs detect smells and sounds that are out of humans’ detection range. Starlings coordinate their flights millisecond by millisecond in ways that make human aviators look absolutely clumsy.  

These neurological differences have fueled many Ph.D. dissertations and countless television documentaries. But in the world of research ethics, these issues are much more than theoretical. Earlier this year, researchers showed that mice grimace in pain, very much the way humans do. If mice feel pain as much as we do, what does this tell us about how animal research should be regulated? If chimpanzees retain an intensely acute memory for recent events, what sorts of protections do they need against psychological trauma?

Up until now, animal protection guidelines have stacked species on a crude scale of biological value. Those at the top of the scale were protected; those at the bottom were not. Biologists now know that such hierarchies have no scientific basis.

So what shall we do? The U.S. Animal Welfare Act currently requires investigators to consider alternatives, a task that is often reduced to a checked box on a research application. It is now clear that is not good enough. Researchers need to really consider alternatives, and they need to implement them. And when alternatives are not readily available, they need to pursue them.

PCRM researchers did exactly that in developing a new test for measuring human insulin levels. Previous methods used animals essentially as living antibody factories, inserting clusters of cells in their abdomens that triggered the production of massive amounts of abdominal fluid, which was tapped off with needles, along with the antibodies it contained. So when we set out to develop a better method, using cells instead of animals, we were told it was not possible. As it turned out, it did take some time and money. But our new insulin assay turned out to be better, not just ethically, but also technically, and is now the industry standard.

As physicians and scientists, we cannot ignore what animal behaviorists have shown us. Rather, we need to embrace new and better research methods that allow science to progress without suffering.  

Neal Barnard signature
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM

Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

Up until now, animal protection guidelines  have stached species
on a crude scale of biological values.

Good Medicine: Beyond Mice and Monkeys, PCRM Conference Explores Alternatives to Animal Research

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