In September of 2018, National Public Radio (NPR) published a story about a Hopkins team of researchers studying barn owls in an attempt to understand why people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder struggled to focus.
The story focused on the lab of Shreesh Mysore, an assistant professor affiliated with the Department of Neuroscience and the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences.
The NPR article and studies published by the lab gained the attention of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which questioned whether the barn owls were being treated ethically and if the experiments done would truly reveal information that could help humans.
Mysore’s lab experiments on barn owls over the course of six to 18 months to better understand how the human brain works, seeking specifically to understand spatial selection and selective spatial attention. Mysore hopes that this information will shed light on various disorders involving attention difficulties in humans.
In an email to The News-Letter, Mysore stated that his research has made it possible to better understand the human brain by understanding circuits found in vertebrates.
“Conclusions from studies in birds can significantly advance our understanding of the function of the analogous neural circuits across vertebrates, including humans, and as well, of their dysfunction in disorders,” he wrote.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Katherine Roe, a neuroscientist and PETA laboratory investigator, explained how PETA came to evaluate the studies done in the Mysore lab.
As part of their investigation, the PETA team submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in order to view Mysore’s grant application and better understand the experiments. They reviewed papers from the lab and contacted animal researchers outside of PETA.
“We consult outside experts in the fields of attention, psychiatry, neurology to get their assessment on the scientific value, as well as the ethical concerns associated with the procedures,” she said. “Ultimately, we write a review and send it to the university and explain what our concerns are and hope that they will contact us back for a discussion. That does happen often, but in this case it did not.”
One of the concerns noted by Roe was the nature of experiments conducted on the owls, which involve the use of head-fixing and craniotomy. Mysore noted that these kinds of experiments have credibility in the field.
“A long history of work in head-fixed animals has established the scientific value of this approach,” he wrote. “It allows for careful experimental control of sensory stimuli and for targeting multiple sites within brain areas, thereby minimizing confounds in the interpretation of the results.”
Roe expressed her concerns that the owls in the Mysore lab were suffering unnecessarily because they were subjected to these experiments in a laboratory environment that does not mimic the real world.
“[Barn owls are] used to flying freely in space, and in this case, they're being born and raised in a laboratory where they do not have the opportunity to enjoy the natural environment,” she said. “The procedures themselves involve brain surgery, the insertion of electrodes into specific brain regions and the movement of electrodes from one brain region to another, which causes brain damage.”
Roe further questioned if responses observed in barn owls could actually be transferred to humans, who sense the environment in a different way.
“Owls have evolved to be able to see and hear in the dark and localize prey when they're moving. Their eyes are structurally different than humans,” she said. “They're ‘rod-dominated,‘ so they can barely move their eyes. They have to turn their head. Their ears are asymmetric, and they actually have feathers that help them hear in space much better than humans can.”
Mysore, however, argued that the results of their research are still applicable to humans because of key similarities.
“The midbrain areas critical for spatial selection and selective attention are found across all vertebrates (for instance, superior colliculus in mammals including primates, vs. optic tectum in birds), as are critical forebrain areas (frontal eye field in humans and monkeys, vs. arcopallial gaze field in owls),” he wrote.
Mysore further noted that there were several advantages to using barn owls, noting that their brains could provide valuable insight on research that attempts to understand how the brain prioritizes different stimuli.
“Birds have an extremely well organized midbrain, with functional and anatomical specializations that are most well-defined among vertebrates (Knudsen 2011, Eur Journal Neurosci),” he wrote. “Specifically, barn owls are multisensory specialists, with excellent auditory as well as visual capabilities, giving us insights into multisensory competition and selection across space — questions that lie at the heart of selective attention.”
Nevertheless, Roe still noted that she was skeptical that Mysore’s research could truly lead to advancements applicable to humans with attentional difficulties, because of how few animal studies are actually transferable.
“We know that animal studies fail to translate to humans 90 to 95% of the time, and this will be true for owls,” she said.
This statement is reflective of an analysis published in The British Medical Journal entitled “Is animal research sufficiently evidence based to be a cornerstone of biomedical research?”
The review states, “Several studies have shown that even the most promising findings from animal research often fail in human trials and are rarely adopted into clinical practice. For example, one study found that fewer than 10% of highly promising basic science discoveries enter routine clinical use within 20 years.”
Roe believed that for studies that are federally funded, this should be more transparent.
“I think the public trusts scientists to only use their money and only use animals when there's a clear trajectory from the experiments to something that might benefit humans, and that's not the case here,” she said.
In an email to The News-Letter, Karen Lancaster, the assistant vice president of external relations for University communications, noted that Mysore’s lab provides veterinary care to animals being used for research and that studies are reviewed to ensure that they adhere to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).
“Full-time specialist veterinarians provide round-the-clock care to ensure the wellbeing of our animals and that they are properly housed in environments that meet and exceed rigorous standards,” she wrote. “Each study is carefully and repeatedly reviewed to ensure adherence to requirements of both the federal Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals administered by the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare at the NIH and the Animal Welfare Act Regulations enforced by the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture]. Our program is accredited by AAALAC [American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care] International based on our adherence to these requirements.”
Roe acknowledged the lab’s adherence to the AWA and the fact that the grant application had been reviewed. However, she stressed that communication between each institution’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) and grant reviewers is not streamlined and that the AWA only requires basic levels of care.
“The Animal Welfare Act is basically the barest minimum that you can provide animals,” she said. “It's not taken into consideration at the grant review level. The IACUC will make sure that any given experimenters are following those guidelines, and if they're not, that they justify it somehow, but the people who reviewed the grant have no idea what the animals are going through.”
She further posed that animal studies should undergo evaluations similar to those conducted for human studies.
“If you're doing research with human subjects, there's something called an internal review board or an IRB, and those people are tasked with comparing what potential harms the experiments might cost to humans relative to the benefits,” she said, “but for animal experiments, this does not happen.”
Roe stated that the ultimate goal of PETA’s campaign was to stop the experiments in favor of other methods.
“I think a favorable resolution would be that Dr. Mysore terminate his ineffective, costly and harmful experiments on owls in favor of more modern, more humane research methods like those that can be conducted in human volunteers,” she said.