The Physicians Committee

Good Science

September 2017

September 21, 2017   animal testing, animals in education


dog emotion studies

When Dr. Gregory Berns' favorite dog Newton, a 14-year-old pug, died, Berns found himself asking whether Newton had loved him the same way he loved Newton. That was the beginning of a unique research endeavor for the Emory University Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics, one in which Callie, another of his rescued dogs, has played a trailblazing role. A recent interview psychologist Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., conducted with Dr. Berns reveals the potentially game-changing results.

What Dr. Berns' research shows is that noninvasive, nonradioactive, and (importantly) noncoercive MRI brain scans can teach us much about how dogs or other nonhumans receive and process information and experiences. In many instances, canine responses involve the same brain regions that are activated by similar human experiences, such as pleasure from a familiar object, sound, or smell. But these responses and brain activation patterns differ among dogs, just as they differ among humans.

By performing functional MRI scans on community-living dogs who willingly participate, Dr. Berns has begun to localize brain responses to hand signals, smells, and other exposures. For example, the caudate nucleus in dogs and humans is activated by the anticipation and perception of pleasure, whether a favorite dog toy or a photo of a beloved family member. Dr. Berns has provided further confirmation that the emotional lives of dogs are rich in much the same ways that human lives are rich. Our canine friends and their nonhuman brethren are not senseless beasts, no matter what Claude Bernard and René Descartes believed in less enlightened eras.

One of Dr. Berns' preliminary findings is that the canine caudate nucleus—the pleasure center—is activated by the return of the dog's guardian from a brief absence. So do dogs love us, miss us when we are gone, and anticipate our return? Animal lovers know the answers intuitively, but science has not made all the connections. Dr. Berns' research is a step in that direction.

What is clear are the bonds and shared emotions that have made Sparky man's longest-tenured companion. The studies conducted by Gregory Berns are confirming what may seem obvious to people who share their lives with dogs, cats, and other companions, and it deconstructs the claim of animal researchers that it is ethical and moral to experiment on nonhumans because they don't experience life as we do. Dr. Berns' research and decades of unproductive animal research to study human diseases or develop drugs tell us just the opposite: Our nonhuman cohabitants of Earth differ from us in ways that invalidate translation of animal research to humans, but they share with us the characteristics of fear, pain, suffering, (and yes, love) and other emotional and physical attributes that make experimenting on them immensely cruel.

September 15, 2017   Alzheimer's disease


Advances in Alzheimers disease research

As one of the top ten causes of death in the United States, Alzheimer’s disease is the only major chronic disease growing at an epidemic rate with no disease-modifying treatments available. The disease is of such great concern that the U.S. government passed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) in 2011 with the goal of finding a way to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer's disease by 2025 while also optimizing care support services and public awareness. This law led to the creation of an advisory council that meets regularly to evaluate and update recommendations for the National Plan to achieve the goals of NAPA. In 2014, the government also passed the Alzheimer's Accountability Act to require the National Institute of Health (NIH) to propose annually a Bypass Budget which determines the amount of additional funds needed to reach the research goals of the National Plan. Congress and the President decide on an annual basis whether to approve this Bypass Budget. Once approved, the NIH is the decision-maker for where these additional funds are allocated in Alzheimer’s research. 

As detailed in our previous blog, Alzheimer’s research has not made any significant breakthroughs in treatments likely due to its focus on flawed animal models and a pathological observation that may not be a key underlying factor driving the most common form of the disease. The Physicians Committee presented these and other flaws with Alzheimer’s research at the Advisory Council meeting in January 2017. We recommended that the Council direct research toward human-relevant models and modifying lifestyle factors driving the most common form of the disease. In the April meeting, the research subcommittee of the Advisory Council made two recommendations in line with our input: 

  • Identify and evaluate (non-drug) care strategies that reduce disease burden and delay disease progression and evaluate their costs and downstream effects.
  • Convene a conference of key stakeholders to identify a meaningful pathway or pipeline for developing and testing nonpharmacological treatments, and scaling up and implementing effective approaches.

 A National Research Summit on Care, Services and Supports for Persons with Dementia and their Caregivers is scheduled to occur in October 2017, and the National Institute of Aging (NIA) plans to integrate the recommendations following the summit into their future research funding planning. 

In March 2017, Physicians Committee sent a commentary to the NIA to request an increase in allocation of funds in the Bypass Budget for epidemiological and clinical studies as well as human-based research approaches. Compared to the fiscal year 2018 Bypass Budget, the recently released Bypass Budget for fiscal year 2019 reflected an increase funding allocation in the areas consistent with our recommendations: 4 percent in translational research and clinical interventions, 2 percent in epidemiology, and 1 percent in research resources. 

These shifts in research support are encouraging in the development of disease-modifying interventions through human-based approaches.   These changes follow on the heels of promising clinical studies including a recent lifestyle intervention clinical trial utilizing diet, exercise, and cognitive training in 1,260 people in Finland demonstrating significant improvements in cognitive functions relative to controls. Scientific American magazine featured the study on the front cover of their April 2017 issue and called it “A Rare Success Against Alzheimer’s.”  At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in July 2017, there were presentations announcing plans to repeat the study at many sites worldwide. During this meeting, the Alzheimer’s Association even announced its support of this trial in the United States by committing 20 million dollars to it. With more funding going into these types of clinical trials, perhaps Alzheimer’s research may finally move toward producing effective disease-modifying interventions.