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Where Cures Come From

In his blog How to perform research with the right tools, Dr Ringach obfuscates knowledge for knowledge sake that might amount to treatments someday with research designed specifically to look for cures and treatments and advance our understanding of human diseases. He is absolutely correct when he implies or states that no one knows where the next big scientific breakthrough will come from. As I have explained, watching sailboats produced one such medical breakthrough.

But society does not fund watching sailboats because the probability of a great medical discovery coming from that particular activity is vastly outweighed by the probability that studying humans with diseases will result in important breakthroughs. I have no argument with Dr Ringach when he says research with animals will advance knowledge and that such knowledge might lead to breakthroughs. This issue is here is one of probability and the probability that basic research using sentient animals will result in cures is very low, as I pointed out.

When Dr Ringach states that none of the methods I put forth are “useful to address this question” I must completely disagree. If by useful he means learning more about the brain so we can treat diseases then both autopsies and technologies like PET, MRI and so forth have contributed far more than animal models. Even if we go all the way back to the very early days of using animals in neuroscience research when gross comparisons between species yielded valuable information, human-based research yielded better information than animal studies did.

If, on the other hand by useful he means figuring out how the human brain works, then using animals is, again, subject to the same problems that using animal models suffer from in all areas of biomedical research; they are not human. They have different evolutionary histories and are differently complex.

The fact is, that the human brain is widely considered the most complex entity on the planet. Severe and unsurmountable obstacles will in all likelihood be encountered with attempts to learn about the human brain by studying brains that are differently complex. We know this because of our understanding of evolution and complex systems and because of past experience.

“The central question in neuroscience” asked by neuroscientists like Dr Ringach might be “how does the brain work” but for patients it is “How can you cure my disease?” Many if not most of major breakthroughs in medicine (with the exception of technological advances) did not come a reductionistic approach but rather from serendipity and human-based research or observation. It is quite possible that we will answer the hard problem of consciousnessand other fascinating questions about the brain and that such knowledge will impact not one iota on how we treat neurological illnesses. There is a difference between science research and science research that has a high likelihood of benefitting humans. My concern is with treating and curing disease. If Dr Ringach wants to use monkeys to answer interesting neuroscience questions then let him say that when he applies for grants and when he justifies his research to society.

As to Dr Ringach’s claim that “there is no method that allows such fine spatial and temporal resolution and is noninvasive so it could be applied in humans” he is right in what he confirms but wrong in what he denies. Patients undergoing awake brain surgery, such as occurs for treating some seizure disorders, do undergo such procedures. He also fails to take into account autopsies that are responsible for most of what we know about which structure in the brain is responsible for which activity. I agree that scientists can do things to animals that cannot be done to humans. My contention lies with whether that data can be applied to humans. For example, the research that Nobel laureates Hubel and Wiesel did in the 1960s was great science but it has not resulted in cures or treatments. (Allow me to anticipate Dr Ringach’s response here by saying that treatment for strabismus predated Hubel and Wiesel’s work and the clinical research that occurred after their research was not dependent on their research. Even fellow neuroscientists admit this.)

When Dr Ringach accuses me of  “think[ing] that understanding how the brain works is not a scientific question that is worth of our time and effort”, he is committing an ad hominem attack and setting up a straw man. For someone who just said he was not trying to attack my character that is a curious statement. All questions about the material universe are worth pursuing; that is not the issue. The issue is whether they worth pursuing given the cost. Curiosity about hypothermia in humans is a viable scientific problem. But I do not approve of using Jews in concentration camps to find out what the affects of hypothermia on organ function are. I support basic neuroscience research provided it is sold to society as research that is unlikely to result in cures or even treatments. If society then decides to allow Dr Ringach to use monkeys to perform such research, so be it. I personally would not allow such research but I will leave that decision up to society, provided that society is given a fair presentation of what they are being asked to fund and condone. 

The “way other animals see or store memories” does not have to “completely different than the way it happens in humans” for the differences to cause catastrophe when applied to humans in the form of treatments. If a scientist wants to learn how an animal sees or stores memories, then study that animal but again do not sell the research to society as means for curing blindness or memory loss or Alzheimer’s. Small differences between complex systems can result in major differences in outcomes. It is this lesson that scientists like Dr Ringach seem to want to ignore. Again, studying the brains of animals will advance knowledge but it will not predict human response to drugs and disease. In order to accomplish that, we have to know how the human brain works and in order for us to obtain that knowledge we must study humans.

I compute the “likelihood [of] our research to generate new therapies and cures is very low” based on the past empirical evidence taken as a whole, not anecdotally, and then put that data in the context of evolution and complex systems. (This is exactly what Shanks and did in Animal Models in Light of Evolution.) I have provided the calculations and cited references with more calculations supporting my position that animal-based basic and applied research has a very low probability of resulting in treatments. Furthermore, the real question is how many treatments that came from the animal lab could only have come from the animal lab. Society very clearly does not want to experiment on animals, especially nonhuman primates, dogs, and cats. So the question researchers like Dr Ringach must answer is: “Could knowledge that led to treatments have been gained in any other fashion?” It is not incumbent upon me to prove a negative rather the researchers must prove the value of using animals as opposed to any and all other methods given society’s feelings about what they do. Merely citing examples from people who agree with you is not proof. Scientific proof requires far more than is normal for a blog. Neither is the plural of anecdote data. Scientists use math for a reason.

I find amusing the fact that Dr Ringach purports to know what I was thinking about, with regard to nanotechnology, 20 years ago. Such unfounded, yet never in doubt, sheer speculation speaks volumes about his position on the whole.

Finally, I am addressing the use of animal in biomedical research, not string theory or any other aspect of research in physics. The fact is that animal models cannot predict human response to drugs and disease and have a very poor track record when used in basic research for leading to treatments. I am not an expert in string theory or space exploration. I am first and foremost a physician who has treated patients and who has lost patients to what are currently terminal illnesses.


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