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National Antivisection Society

Human brain studies

2 February 2012

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Primates are frequently used in brain research and they suffer enormously. There are also fundamental differences between species, so adoption of new techniques in neuroscience is vital.

For a decade, we have been funding the neuroimaging group at the Aston Brain Centre (ABC), headed by Professor Paul Furlong, which engages in a wide range of research activities studying human behaviour and brain function. The group works to establish how new techniques may be used to replace animal experiments. Projects include vision, neurodevelopment and clinical research, cognition and pharmacokinetics (drug characteristics). This has put us at the forefront of the drive away from horrific animal experiments in neuroscience.

The team examined the effect of a drug, Zolpidem, on a stroke patient. This drug is typically used to treat insomnia and belongs to a class of drugs called sedative-hypnotics. It slows brain activity, allowing the patient to sleep (ref 1).

Zolpidem has previously been reported to have an awakening effect in patients in a persistent vegetative state. It was amongst a few treatments that were shown to “improve the level of consciousness in certain cases” (ref 2). Several studies have shown that the drug can provide transient improvement in the condition of patients, which was repeated when the drug was readministered.

The work at Aston involved MRI and MRS scans of the patient, designed to characterise both the anatomical and chemical damage caused by the stroke. Changes in brain circulation and activity were identified and administration of the drug showed improved circulation in the affected half of the brain.

In the field of neurodevelopment, studies were carried out involving two children with rare neurological disorders related to epilepsy. One child’s brain was studied as she conducted certain tasks requiring her to move her fingers whilst being scanned for a recording period of 1 hour. The data from this girl was compared to results from her twin sister.

In a second study, EEG and fMRI were used simultaneously on a patient with the epilepsy related disorder, to determine whether the areas of the brain that showed EEG spikes in between seizures also had signal changes due to the blood in that area. Results suggest that certain areas of the brain are connected, but that the connectivity patterns from these areas suggest that the functions leading to the condition extend beyond these particular areas of the brain.

One particularly intriguing study, another that could not possibly be conducted in animals with any reliability in animals, involves the differences in the brain when participants are critical or reassuring towards themselves. Self criticism has been strongly correlated with a range of conditions such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, and “self-reassurance” is inversely associated with the same conditions. As little is known about the neurophysiology of these internal processes, the group used a new fMRI task to investigate.

Results indicated self criticism was linked to activity in the areas of the brain which are connected to error processing and resolution, and behavioural inhibition. Self-reassurance was linked to the brain areas responsible for compassion and empathy towards others. This work is useful for showing the neural basis for certain mood disorders.

This is the type of work that cannot be carried out on animals, and shows the elegance and real scientific relevance of these cutting edge technologies.

References
1. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/
a693025.html - accessed 27/10/10
2. Georgiopoulos, M. et al (2010) “Vegetative state and minimally conscious state: A review of the Therapeutic Interventions”, Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery, vol.88, pp.199-207


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