Understanding Social Behaviour in Research–Why we should remember RAT PARK

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One of the major aims of scientific investigation is to improve human lives, particularly our health. One of the best current tools for improving human health is the animal model, though there is a lot of ongoing work into alternative methods. An animal model is a representative living system that can be manipulated to reflect a particular condition or illness. Rodents are popularly used due to many factors including size, breeding rates, and the ease at which they can be altered in genetically meaningful ways. However, it is important to remember that rodents cannot be considered a tool in the same manner as a microscope as they are living organisms with their own set of behaviours. This may seem obvious or even silly to mention, but experiments that have not considered this important aspect of the animal model have affected our ability to improve human health.

    An excellent example of this is in the field of drug addiction studies which allowed animals to self administer recreational drugs which were common in the 1950’s and 60’s. These consisted of socially isolating each animal to prevent animals from damaging equipment and hindering each other’s surgical recovery. The results of such studies caused investigators to conclude that drug addiction was not only instant but impossible to stop. A research group from Simon Fraser University considered such experiments in the context of the human condition. Knowing that rats and humans are social animals, they considered the impact that social isolation may play in producing these results. After all, how would you respond to an endless supply of drugs and nothing else?

    To this end they built a free range environment they named ‘rat park’ and split the rats into two groups. One group lived in the free range rat park environment and the second group lived in classical single caged environments. Their results showed that not only were the rat park animals better at coping with addiction but they were also more resilient to becoming addicted in the first place. This is very important to understanding human addiction as it is clear that there is more to addiction than simply a supply of drugs.This example illustrates how animal models can be much more informative tools to medicine when their social behaviour is considered as an important factor.

For more information on Rat Park have a look at Prof Bruce Alexander’s website.

Or this comic by Stuart McMillan.

The header image was sourced from: http://www.stuartmcmillen.com/comics_en/rat-park/#page-1

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