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Are Animal Experiments Justified?

The rat sat still in the middle of her cage, moving only in response to my touch, and even then only as if in slow-motion. My subject, GRat66, was a few months old, and except for her long bare tail, fit neatly into my palm a few minutes earlier, when I injected a few drops of a potent opiate under her skin, near the belly. Now, her beady black eyes bulged as she faded into an opiate stupor.

I was preparing to implant minuscule electrodes into the rat’s brain. The opiate would serve as an analgesic before, during, and after the surgery. It was the fall of 2018 and I was hoping the results of the surgery would help answer some questions that had been tormenting me as I embarked on the sixth year of my Ph.D. in neuroscience. How do the parts of the brain controlling movement interact with those responsible for visual sensation? Why do neurons in the visual areas jolt to action when an animal moves, even in the dark?

I placed GRat66 into an anesthesia-induction chamber, a small plastic box connected to a vaporizer that dispenses the anesthetic, isoflurane. After she was sufficiently knocked out (I pinched her toes to make sure the withdrawal reflex was gone), I placed her into a stereotax, which serves to hold the head steadily in place and provides a flow of isoflurane into her body throughout the operation. I then injected a half a milliliter of lidocaine under the rat’s scalp, which swelled with the local anesthetic’s volume. Dressing myself in a sterile gown, face-mask, and gloves, I proceeded to cut across the length of GRat66’s scalp, exposing the thick ivory-colored skull underneath the pink and bloody skin and shiny white fat.

WHAT’S GOING ON?: A rat in Grigori Guitchounts’ lab peaks out of her pen to investigate and sniff the neuroscientist as he takes her photo. Guitchounts supplies his lab rats with plenty of playthings, like a plastic tube and crinkled paper—although those benefits, he says, “don’t seem to make up for their imprisonment and invasive surgery.”

Peering through a microscope, I drilled a small hole in the skull using a dental drill and carefully peeled back the membrane covering the brain. I positioned the electrodes—wires ten times thinner than a human hair—over one of

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