Lord Dowding Fund for humane research


National Antivisection Society

Expert Opinion: Paul Furlong, Professor of Clinical Neuroimaging at Aston University

2 February 2012

Professor Paul Furlong, MPhil., PhD. and his group have published 36 high impact international peer reviewed journal articles and presented work at over 25 international neuroscience conferences during their preceding 5 year funding period. The LDF has now granted Professor Furlong funding until 2015.

New Science (NS): Describe a “typical day” at the Aston Neuroimaging suite.

The work is varied but is roughly divided between fundamental research, (exploring brain responses in healthy volunteers) and our clinical research work (studying brain function in patients referred to us by NHS consultants). Two different brain scans are performed for both fundamental and clinical research; MRI or MEG based scans.

At the Aston MRI Centre we scan firstly to obtain a high resolution brain image which we can reconstruct in three dimensions, but also to then obtain vital information about how the brain processes information. This is often achieved by projecting information or stimuli to human volunteers whilst they are in the scanner.

Another type of scan we perform is MEG, where we detect brain waves, generated by brain cells. We can create ‘virtual electrode’ data, which can replace some types of invasively implanted brain electrodes.

By merging MRI and MEG scans, we gather a tremendous amount of valuable information about how the brain is working, helping us understand brain function in healthy volunteers as they process information.

A lot of time is spent scanning people, but the analysis can take ten times longer than the “scan time”, so a lot of time is spent at computer terminals looking at, and analysing data.

NS: What’s the best thing about your job?

Two things; It is wonderful to have a job that is so interesting, varied and challenging and I am also very lucky to work with such talented scientists in a friendly, supportive environment.

NS: What motivates you to be involved in the development of alternatives to animal testing?

Because most of my research is translational (applying fundamental research to solve clinical problems or address clinical questions) I have been constantly concerned about the assumptions made about the translatability of brain research on animals to humans. Particularly in the fields of behavioural neuroscience, and with questions concerning human mental health, these are major challenges which I believe must be addressed by studying human subjects wherever possible. Finding animal alternatives for me is about pursuing the best possible answer to our medical challenges.

NS: What barriers, do you think, prevent researchers from using alternatives as opposed to animals?

I think there are four key issues, which can be summarised as:

a) Lack of availability and access to resources
b) Lack of training opportunities in alternative methods or technologies
c) Lack of incentives (especially funding)
d) Legislation

For scientists, with established research career paths, using animal methods and models, the issues noted above will almost certainly ensure that they remain on that track. It takes great effort and sometimes good fortune for scientists to be able to change direction, and there are few incentives for them to do so.

NS: Outline one use of animals that could be replaced today with non-animal methods.

In the field of behavioural neuroscience, primates are trained to respond to a stimulus in order to study brain cell changes associated with their response and behaviour. In many cases I believe that the questions could more effectively be studied non-invasively using neuroimaging techniques, especially with pain research, where human cognition is a vital factor in understanding the response to pain and analgesia.

NS: What are the advantages of using non-animal methods in neuroimaging?

Most importantly, human studies in health and disease are directly translatable to the human condition. This is vital if we are to truly understand the underlying causes of mental illness and many conditions that do not naturally occur in animals and are often artificially induced to mimic symptoms and signs.

NS: Can you envisage a time when animals will not be used in medical research? What, if anything, is currently preventing this happening?

I believe that eventually animals will not be used in medical research because alternatives will offer the most effective and productive data for treatment of human illness and disease. There are already compelling alternatives which will be refined and improved over time.

Seeking alternatives needs to be a strategic priority, with appropriate resources in place. Establishment of the NC3R in the UK was a step in the right direction, although resourcing and scope of action are relatively modest.

Government strategy and policy needs to put pressure on our commercial partners in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries to make animal alternative strategies viable and ultimately financially attractive. Financial considerations remain the greatest obstacle to progress in my view.

NS: What do you think neuro-imaging will be like in 25 years time?

It would be wonderful to think that our techniques will be in the forefront of screening for developmental disorders and brain disease. Together with gene screening and gene therapy, that infants and young children could be scanned to aid profiling for the likelihood of diseases in later life, and preventative therapies used to eradicate many of the brain disorders and mental health issues that affect so many people today.

© National Anti-Vivisection Society