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Octopuses and squids, cephalopods, may soon receive the same legal protection in research as more commonly recognized animals such as mice and monkeys. This groundbreaking move was initiated by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), which called for feedback on proposed guidelines in early September. These guidelines, if implemented, would mandate that research projects involving cephalopods be subject to ethical evaluation before they can secure federal funding.

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The motivation behind this development lies in an emerging body of scientific evidence suggesting that cephalopods possess the biological mechanisms necessary for pain perception. The NIH further points to their advanced learning and cognitive abilities, as well as their similar responses to anesthesia when compared to mammals. However, the agency acknowledges the complexity of this issue due to the significant differences between cephalopod and mammalian brains, emphasizing the need for further research to define the ethical boundaries of cephalopod research.

In the realm of animal research, the United States Public Health Service (PHS) plays a pivotal role by setting guidelines for the use of animals in scientific studies. These guidelines have traditionally classified animals as vertebrates. Before receiving federal funds, scientists must obtain approval from their institutions’ ethics boards, which evaluate research protocols to ensure compliance with PHS standards.

A significant gap has existed in the realm of ethical treatment for invertebrates, which include cephalopods, insects, and worms. Last year, members of the US House of Representatives and Senate penned letters to both the NIH and PHS, urging them to redefine the term ‘animal’ to include cephalopods in research policies. The NIH has now proposed an amendment that requires ethics committees within institutions to assess cephalopod research.

Catharine Krebs, a medical research specialist at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, an animal rights non-profit organization in Washington DC, expressed approval of the NIH’s proposed guidance. However, she acknowledged that individual ethics committees sometimes apply rules inconsistently and that her organization ultimately wishes to see cephalopods excluded from research altogether. Nevertheless, she views this development as a positive step forward.

Cephalopod researchers themselves also welcome this move, as it provides clarity and ethical standards for their work. Although the number of federally funded scientists studying cephalopods is relatively small, it has been steadily increasing. Researchers who previously utilized other model animals, such as mice, have become intrigued by studying the basic biology of the cephalopod nervous system.

Despite the overall optimism surrounding this development, some concerns remain. Robyn Crook, a marine biologist at San Francisco State University, highlights the complexity of the issue due to the limited understanding of cephalopod biology. For example, researchers know that opioid drugs suppress pain in mice, but it is unclear whether pain receptors in different cephalopod species respond in the same way. This lack of knowledge makes it challenging to assess the effectiveness of anesthetics or pain management strategies in cephalopods. Crook hopes that the NIH will allocate funding for further research aimed at improving the welfare of cephalopods in laboratory settings.

The NIH acknowledges these gaps in understanding and emphasizes that certain aspects of cephalopod research, such as pain perception and species-specific husbandry, are still being studied. Applying the PHS policy to cephalopods remains challenging due to these uncertainties. Nevertheless, several existing PHS guidelines on animal research, including the advancement of scientific knowledge, the minimization of animal use, and the reduction of discomfort, can already be applied to cephalopods.

Internationally, other countries have already begun addressing similar issues related to cephalopod research. In nations such as the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, ethical approval is required for certain types of cephalopod research. An international team of scientists, led by Graziano Fiorito at the Anton Dohrn Zoological Station in Naples, Italy, has developed recommendations for the housing, care, and management of cephalopods in research settings. These guidelines cover various aspects, including water quality, animal density, anesthesia, and humane euthanasia.

The European Commission is expected to adopt these minimum requirements into law and institute a training certification across the European Union. Each European country currently has its regulations regarding cephalopod research, but standardizing care practices worldwide is an overarching goal. Standardization is essential to ensure that cephalopod research adheres to consistent ethical standards globally.

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