When he was four years old, A.B. Bonds fell into a rose bush and pricked his right eye, rendering it functionally blind. Now, as a renowned electrical engineering professor at Vanderbilt University, Bonds is on the cutting edge of research that one day might lead toward restoring vision to those without sight.
But while Bonds’ work is frequently cited in scientific journals, his experiments have been the subject of heated controversy, landing on the nightly news and on the pages of the morning newspaper. In order to gain a better understanding of the human brain, specifically the visual cortex, Bonds conducts lethal experiments on cats, arousing the ire of animal rights activists who say that his publicly funded research is both inhumane and clinically worthless. They have vowed to stop his experiments.
“Bonds’ project is a nightmare,” says Michael Budkie, director of the Cincinnati-based Stop Animal Exploitation Now (SAEN). “It has nothing to do with science and nothing to do with health care. It has to do with killing cats and wasting $2.5 million in taxpayer dollars.”
Bonds is by no means the only researcher at Vanderbilt who uses animals. In an official statement, the university notes that animal research plays a “critical role in improving the lives of both humans and animals.” And, according to federal reports, the university conducts a greater range of animal experimentation than any other facility in the state.
In 1997, for example, the last year for which such data is publicly available, Vanderbilt conducted research on 98 sheep, 273 pigs, 124 primates, and 422 dogs28 of which were not given anesthesia. In a written explanation by the university on file with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, researchers didn’t provide pain relievers to the dogs because it would have interfered with the experiments.
But while animal experimentation is nothing new at Vanderbilt or any research institution for that matter, the rather graphic nature of Bonds’ experiments, which he began nearly 20 years ago, have attracted attention from animal rights activists nationwide. The crux of Bonds’ research is recording the activity of the neurons in a cat’s brain. Getting to that point, however, is what this controversy is all about.
In Bonds’ experiments the cats are given a series of anesthetic agents along with gallamine triethiodide, a paralytic drug. The researcher paralyzes the cats so that they do not unconsciously twitch during the experiment.
The cat’s head is placed in what is called a stereotaxic device, a holding contraption similar to the one pictured above. The picture, of a cat at a California laboratory, was provided by SAEN. The device contains a series of rods that hold the cat’s head in a fixed position.
The researcher then drills a 2-3 millimeter hole in the skull of the cat so that a microscopic electrode can monitor the neuron activity in the cat’s brain. During this time, the cat’s eyes are focused on a light stimulus.
After the experiment, the cats are given a fatal overdose of barbituates. Like the picture above, the cat’s eyes remain open during the experiment, although contact lenses cover the eyes to prevent them from drying out.
A panel of medical experts assembled by SAEN have written letters stating that Bonds might not use enough anesthesia on the cats. Nedim Buyukmihci, for example, is a professor at the University of California-Davis’ renowned School of Veterinary Medicine. He writes in a letter that while on the surface, the anesthesia seems adequate, “because the cats are paralyzed, this could lead to suffering and consciousness during the procedures.”
Bonds, however, dismisses such conclusions. “We very carefully monitor the heart rate of the cats,” he explains. “If the heart rate gets above a certain level, we increase the anesthesia dosage.”
In addition, Bonds points out that his team is well trained in administering anesthesia to animals.
Members of SAEN’s panel also contend that Bonds’ research won’t advance human medicine.
“This will never, ever be useful,” says Dr. Jerry Vlasak, a California trauma surgeon who is a general critic of animal research. “Maybe one day it will help out with cat vision, but it will certainly never be applicable to humans. There are just too many differences between a cat’s eye and brain and a human’s eye and brain.”
But various admirers of Bonds’ work say his experiments hold immense promise, stating that it one day could lead to the creation of a prosthetic eye.
“Suppose somebody shoots you in the head and destroys part of your visual system. There is some hope of creating a prosthetic device and replacing the damaged part of the brain,” says Dr. Ehud Kaplan, a professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “But there is no hope of creating that type of device without putting electrodes into the brain of an animal.”
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This is exactly why we have juries.