Earlier this year, the MRC Brain Network Dynamic Unit invited lay members of local branches of Parkinson’s UK to visit the unit to learn more about the Unit’s research on the causes and treatment of Parkinson’s disease, and the use of animals in Parkinson’s research. It’s a great example of an organisation putting the Concordat on Openness into action. 

One of the members of Parkinson’s UK wrote a short report about the event, which they have generously offered to be shared on the Animal Research Nexus website as part of our interests in creating new conversations about animal research by new voices:

“Professor Brown welcomed us all to the Unit and started with a few facts and figures. The MRC is part of the UKRI (UK Research & Innovation), employing around 12,000 researchers in 118 countries around the world, with an annual budget of £755.5m. The Festival is held each year and allows interested members of the public to see some of the activity going on behind the scenes in the field of research. The Brain Dynamics Unit in Oxford opened in 2015 and has 40 staff and 15 students. The main focus of their work is looking at memory and movement in Parkinson’s.

The tools that are available to them are a combination of a) scanning of surface brain cells, b) investigating and monitoring people who have already had DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation), and c) animal models (e.g. mice and rats).

Our first talk was about DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation). The procedure is now 30 years old, and has treated some 150,000 people over the years. Despite its successes, there is no doubt that it brings unwanted side effects with it, to a greater or lesser extent for each participant. One of the things that the team is looking at is the possibility of reducing or even eliminating these side effects, by tweaking the equipment to only recognise when the need is there, and not continually. It was explained as being like a central heating thermostat, i.e. only kicking in when required.

Our next talk tackled the controversial subject of using animals in research. The presenter discussed the very strict rules and guidance that are in place to protect as far as possible, the health and welfare of the animals. He emphasised the overriding rule that animals can only be used if there is no alternative. Also, the benefits must outweigh the costs, i.e. in welfare and suffering. Mice are used because the brain of a mouse, in particular the “basal ganglia”, very much resembles the human brain. The experiments could not be performed solely by simulation on a computer, and obviously not on human beings.

After lunch, we then broke up into small groups, some of which were taken on a tour of the labs, where we saw some of the amazing state of the art equipment, and had chance to meet and talk to the various scientists and students who are doing such fantastic work and are trying to make life better in the long term for us Parkinson’s people.”

Within the Engagement and Involvement strand of the Animal Research Nexus, we are tracing the ways in which people affected by health conditions are encountering animal research at events like this to understand their experiences. Medical charities are increasingly involving their members in discussions about the use of animals in research; some are even encouraging people affected by health conditions to review and inform applications that are open about the use of animals in research. Research facilities are also increasingly opening their doors to public and patient events which discuss animal research. These encounters are part of a complex emotional landscape around the animal research nexus. Our research is exploring how engagement and involvement activities that include animal research can be organised so that they are sensitive to the diverse experiences of participants, researchers, and others involved.