A recent study published in Nature Methods found that laboratory-confined mice and rats experience significantly elevated stress levels in the presence of male animal experimenters. The study was authored by Jeffrey S. Mogil the head of the Pain Genetics Lab at McGill University and experiments were led by colleague Robert E. Sorge . Mogil described the amount of stress experienced as “massive” and compared it to what the animals might feel when they are stuffed “in a very small tube so the mouse can’t move for 15 minutes”. In an article in Nature, he described it as “shockingly stressful”.
It is yet one more unexpected variable that experimenters have failed to capture and that likely contributes to the overall lack of reliability of animal experiments. The study itself concludes by saying:
“stress caused by male experimenters may represent a confound of much existing animal research, extending even to nonbehavioral studies in which tissues were obtained from live rodents euthanized by either male or female personnel.”
Mogil has said that it’s:
“More than just a curiosity, this stress response can throw a curveball into study results.”
The McGill University press release announcing the study’s findings stated that:
“Scientists inability to replicate research findings using mice and rats has contributed to mounting concern over the reliability of such studies”
and specifically with respect to this particular experiment stated that the
“reaction may skew research findings.”
Douglas Wahlsten of the University of Alberta was quoted as saying:
“It’s the kind of result a lot of people wish wouldn’t happen,”
Co-author of the study Robert Sorge summarized by saying:
“Our findings suggest that one major reason for lack of replication of animal studies is the gender of the experimenter”
These quotes are not from animal advocates or committed critics of animal experimentation but are from the experimenters themselves. At the conclusion of the New York Times article on the study, Mogil suggests that male experimenters could potentially mitigate this factor by “sit[ting] in the room with the rodents for 30 to 60 minutes before conducting experiments.” But he says “no one is going to do that” and settles for suggesting that the gender of the experimenter be included in the Methods section of future publications.
What’s (not really) amazing is that the experimenters in this case don’t even seem to be pretending to take their efforts as seriously as their rhetoric would suggest. If the fate of humanity hinges on animal experimentation, if countless human lives hang in the balance, then spending 30 to 60 minutes allowing an animal’s stress level to subside before performing an experiment would seem worthwhile if it increased the likelihood of reliable results. But “no one is going to do that”.
As the name of Pain Genetics Laboratory suggests, Mogil and his colleagues are no strangers to inflicting pain on animals. Indeed, it is their speciality.
In fact, Mogil’s laboratory has developed a so-called Mouse Grimace Scale so as to better quantify the degree of pain being inflicted on the animals in their laboratory (the Mouse Grimace Scale was of use for this recent study). In developing the Mouse Grimace Scale, experimenters injected animals with acetic acid and filmed their reactions so that video footage of painful expressions could be studied frame and frame and then categorized.
Mogil explained that:
“Grimaces were most pronounced for pain that lasted for a matter of minutes or hours, and for discomfort in joints and internal organs.”
Mogil has both been an active participant in painful experiments on animals and has argued for the continued use of animals in such experiments. In 2010, Mogil co-authored a review article in the journal Pain titled “The Necessity of Animal Models in Pain Research.” This dual role of being an active experimenter as well as an advocate for continued experimentation makes Mogil a highly appropriate target for criticism by those who recognize the moral value of animal lives.
Finally, Mogil’s own experiments have provided more than adequate grounds for him to realize that inflicting pain on mice is wrong. In 2013 he gave a talk at the American Pain Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting with the title “Mice are People Too” in which he stressed that mice have social lives. One can only conclude that Mogil’s sees them as the kind of people that one can breed, manipulate, experiment on, and kill.
The website for Jeffrey Mogil’s Pain Genetics Laboratory is most helpful in providing the following contact information for both the laboratory itself and for Jeffrey Mogil specifically:
Department of Psychology
1205 Dr. Penfield Avenue, Rm. N7/42
Montreal, QC H3A 1B1