Fostering brain research and innovation must, more than ever, be a European priority. Earlier this year, the European Citizens' Initiative ‘Save cruelty free cosmetics – Commit to a Europe without animal testing’ called for a legislative roadmap to phase-out all animal testing in the EU before the end of the current legislative term. In case this request was accepted, the consequences would be major. Putting a definite stop on animal research within Europe would lead to an exodus of research to regions of the world where animal welfare is less regulated, and of researchers, academics and industry who would move outside of the EU.
The brain is complex. Most of what we need to learn about the brain still depends directly, or indirectly, upon research in animal models.
Knowledge about brain function in health and disease and the development of new therapies requires careful evaluation of animal testing to secure efficacious and safe treatment for patients. Brain organoids (like other complementary methods developed thanks to knowledge obtained from animal research) have severe limitations and do not reflect the more integrated interactions between the different organs, which are necessary to evaluate long-term effects. Behavioural alterations such as the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, or all the symptoms of psychiatric illnesses, cannot be assessed in vitro.
In the absence of scientifically valid methods that can replace animal procedures, phasing out the use of animals in research would threaten the quality of life of the millions of citizens affected by brain conditions. Policymakers cannot shy away from putting research first, and this means ensuring the use of all available methods, including animal models.
Over the last decade, legislation and ethical training have been improved and all neuroscientists in Europe meticulously prioritise animal welfare. Animal research in the EU is one of the most regulated and supervised scientific activities guided by the 3Rs. Each of the procedures carried out on the animals follows a strictly regulated process previously evaluated by an expert ethics committee and approved by the competent authority at the regional and national level, following European guidelines. Researchers are also increasingly transparent on how they use animals.
Given the tremendous advancements in research that would not have been possible without animal studies, it is essential that the European Commission not only recognises the necessity of continued animal experimentation but also increases support for it if we are to retain excellence and competitiveness on the world stage. We owe this to the 179 million Europeans living with a brain condition – mental and neurological alike – their families and society as a whole.
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