Story last updated at 2:53 p.m. on
Friday, September 17, 1999
The Associated Press
NASHVILLE -- Researchers at Vanderbilt University say they hope to one day help the blind see through experiments they're conducting on cats, but animal rights activists say such treatment is cruel.
The research, conducted in the lab of electrical engineering professor A.B. Bonds, looks at electrical signals involved in vision by inserting electrodes into the brains of cats.
Michael Budkie, an animal rights activist from Milford, Ohio, said during a news conference Thursday that the research was "gruesome" and painful to the animals, which are destroyed after the experiment.
He shared letters from three doctors and two veterinarians who said Bonds' research was irrelevant and could be done without using animals. All of them are members of organizations that support animal rights. Bonds said the experiments don't cause the animals pain. He said the cats are placed under anesthesia, "and at any indication the animal is waking up, we increase the dosage of anesthesia," he told The Tennessean in a telephone interview.
He added his research, which is supported by the National Institutes of Health, has been approved at three levels: Vanderbilt's Animal Care and Use Committee, the National Institutes of Health's animal welfare committee, and the USDA's Animal/Plant/Health Inspections Service. Ehud Kaplan, a research professor at Mt. Sinai Medical School in New York who also studies vision, said that some of Bonds' discoveries have been pivotal in improving understanding about how the brain "sees."
"We would not know what to tell the computer to send into these stimulating electrodes without the work that A.B. and others are doing," Kaplan said.
Kaplan said Bonds' discoveries are helping scientists understand the code of electrical impulses that brain cells use to translate visual images from the retina into pictures the brain can see.
He said one day scientists may be able to put electrodes into the brains of blind people to restore their sight. But that won't happen unless scientists crack the brain's code through animal research, Kaplan said. It's unethical to do those experiments in humans, he said, and the information cannot be gleaned any other way.
The animal activists said they became aware of Bonds' research this spring when they discovered that some of the cats he used in his research were purchased for $5 each from the Metro pound.
Bonds' lab purchased 14 cats in 1998, and four cats in the first two months of 1999, but no pound animals have been sold to Vanderbilt since February, university officials said.
Bonds said he purchased some cats from the Metro pound in the past when it was difficult to obtain animals bred for laboratory research. Vanderbilt now obtains its lab animals only from facilities approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to university officials.
"We are absolutely not purchasing animals from any pound facilities anywhere," said Vanderbilt spokesman Michael J. Schoenfeld.
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