Animal experimentation is a large and complex field of science and it’s filled with controversy. Many people question how humans as a species choose to utilize other life forms in experiments which they have no choice in. Where exactly do we draw the line?
Michigan based company, Backyard Brains, aims to teach people about neuroscience through the use of experiments on invertebrates such as cockroaches. Their most recent invention, the RoboRoach, allows people to surgically attach a microchip to a cockroach, thereby briefly controlling its left/right movements by micro-stimulation of the antenna nerves. They even recently ran a successfully-funded Kickstarter campaign, raising over $12,000 for it. That’s correct, it’s animal experimentation you can do at home, and people funded it!
The company is aware of the ethical dilemma they are taking part in, and devote a section of their website to “ethics.” Their first statement on the page is: “Our experiments are not philosophically perfect and without controversy; however, we believe the benefits outweigh the cost due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current age.”
They mention how they have received messages of thanks from adults and parents of children with neurological afflictions for making neuroscience easier to understand. They are also “constantly surveying the animal kingdom for easier and less invasive ways of unequivocally demonstrating neural activity. The cockroach leg preparation is the best we have found so far.”
Slate reports on how the surgery unfolds: “The cockroaches are placed in ice water as a kind of crude anesthetic. Then the kids are instructed to sand down a patch of shell on the cockroach’s head and superglue electrodes to the newly smooth area. Next, a groundwire is stuck into the cockroach’s thorax—the area right between its neck and stomach. Finally, the kids must carefully trim the antennae and stick small silver electrodes in them that will receive the signal from the circuit that attaches to the cockroach’s back and resembles a tiny backpack.”
After all that, you just have to swipe the smartphone screen to get that roach moving and see what happens.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “Some scientists consider the project problematic because it democratizes animal experimentation, not to mention the possible lingering effects it might have on the wellbeing of the roaches.”
Backyard Brains cite academic studies on how their tools increase the understanding of neuroscience concepts, and how hands on teaching is more beneficial than lecture based. They mention that in classrooms and at demonstrations the cockroaches are given an icy anesthesia before the surgery. These are all great precautions however, in making a kit that allows anyone access to a tool that gives them power over another creature, we just can’t be sure who’s really learning and who’s just playing for fun.
Image credit: backyardbrains.com