In the back room of a lab located on the top floor of Papazian Hall are 17 lab rats currently being used in an experiment run by the psychology department. The rat lab is under the direction of Centennial Professor of Psychology Allen Schneider, but students carry out all of the experimentation that occurs within the lab. Over the years, Schneider’s interest in physiological psychology, which seeks to understand human behavior by manipulating the brains of animal subjects, has supported a series of experiments within the lab.
The current undertaking in the rat lab is a study of how memories of fear can be eliminated. “We’re talking about very strong emotional fear memories that can interfere with your life,” said Rose Pitkin ’14, a neuroscience major who spends four hours a week in the rat lab. “These are traumatic events like car accidents, violence, or house fires – things that could cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”
The goal of the experiment is to manipulate the brains of rats that have been subjected to a traumatic experience in such a way that they forget their memories of fear. These healing methods, if found effective, could hopefully one day be applied to alleviate the pain of humans suffering from PTSD.
According to Corinne Sommi ’14, who has worked in the lab for three years, the eight students who work in the lab must care for the rats, perform the experiment on the rats, and ultimately kill the rats after data has been collected. “We feed them and give them water.” Sommi said. “When the rats come to us they are juveniles, and we have to pick them up and get them used to people.” Handling the rats in this way is essential to prevent the rats from experiencing fear from human contact during the experiment.
After the rats have been assimilated to their environment, they undergo a traumatic experience that is designed to leave them with memories of panic and alarm. “We put them in a box and run a current through the box to shock them and establish their fear memory,” said Sommi. The pain they experience from the shock will later develop into a fear memory.
Pitkin added, “It’s startling to them but it’s not enough shock to stop their hearts.”
According to Sommi, since fear is a learned experience, the rats come to associate the box with the feelings of terror that arose in them when they were shocked. This makes them suitable subjects for a variety of treatments that attempt to manipulate the brains to exterminate memories of fear. “We use drugs and exposure therapy to make the memory extinction permanent,” she said.
The students working in the lab make their own propranolol, a drug used to reduce anxiety, and inject the medication into the rats. “Propranolol is a beta blocker,” said Chelsea Matzko ’15 who has been working in the lab for the semester. “This means that it reduces the symptoms of fear and lessens the effects of PTSD.”
Injected with propranolol, the rats are placed back into the boxes.
“We put them back into the context where they were scared and observe their behavior” said Matzko. Each rat’s level of fear is measured according to how long they stay motionless in the box – a symptom of panic in rodents. Following this final stage of experimentation, the rodents are placed into a chamber where they are killed using gas.
But while the intentions of the experimentation are positive, there is concern for the ethical implications of using rats for this type of study. “Animal research of any kind takes a negative toll on the animal’s life,” explained Madeline Conca ’17, also a neuroscience major at the college. “An animal’s value needs to be more than just a mechanism to better the lives of humans.”
Coca is not alone. Azucena Lucatero ’16, who is in the process of establishing an animal rights advocacy group at Swarthmore, said that animal research was not only unethical but unnecessary. “I’m fundamentally opposed to to anyone using animals in research,” she said. “It’s cruel on multiple levels and totally unnecessary. Alternatives to animal testing — which are just as, if not more, effective and valuable — exist.”
Lucatero, however, still volunteered to help care for the rats of Thanksgiving break, saying that if she could not stop the research, she could at least “give them some comfort.”
“I gave the rats food, water, and played with them to help them settle down and get used to people,” she said. “They were really scared because they had just been shipped in.”
Those working in the lab, however, said that the detriments to the rats were a necessary evil. “You could never do this type of research on people,” Pitkin said. “We are using these resources because they are what is most available to us.”
Sommi agreed saying that the conclusions of the research to some extent outweigh its ethical costs. “It’s really easy to hate animal research until you know someone who could be saved by it,” she said. “I love rats, and I don’t think this is the worst thing in the world. There is a greater good for it.”
Regardless of the ethics of the experimentation, the rat lab plays a significant role in the psychology department’s research at the college and provides students with a unique lab setting.
“The rat lab is the only operating animal science lab at the college,” Pitkin said. “I chose to work there because the research I did this summer made me realize the importance of such labs. For me, this is a great opportunity.”