University of Minnesota graduate student defends controversial hamster sex drive study

These little critters can help us learn about ourselves, a U of M scientist argues.
These little critters can help us learn about ourselves, a U of M scientist argues.

On Tuesday, we told you that the University of Minnesota made In Defense of Animals' most ridiculous animal research list for a recent study investigating the link between hamsters' diets and sex drives.

Since then, we've heard from a number of folks concerned that the post didn't demonstrate sufficient appreciation for the importance of animal research. One such person is Christy Willoughby, a graduate student pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at the U of M.

Willoughby believes studies like the one investigating hamsters' sex drive can be of vital importance to humans. "Without animal models, we would not have most of the medicines that exist today," she wrote to us.

For context, here's how In Defense of Animals summarized the controversial U of M study, which was paid for by three publicly endowed National Institutes of Health grants:

Scientists at Lehigh University and the University of Minnesota found that putting hamsters on a diet had no significant impact on their abilities to perform or enjoy sexual intercourse, although they appeared less motivated to initiate it. Female hamsters who had been fed 75 percent of what they would normally eat for 8-11 days tended to spend more time with food and less time with male hamsters when given a choice between them.

The study, Willoughby writes, is actually designed to help us learn about human addiction. Cravings for addictive substances like drugs and alcohol hijack the same neural circuits as cravings for "natural" pleasures like sex. So, by proxy, the hamster study looked at the connection between food and sex in hopes that researchers could learn something about the relationship between sex and addiction to various pleasures in humans.

Researchers used young hamsters with no sexual experience. "By learning what happens in the brain when a naturally motivated behavior [that is, sex] occurs for the first time, scientists can gain insight into how addiction may work," Willoughby writes.

Willoughby (pictured) argues that animal experiments are integral to modern medicine.
Willoughby (pictured) argues that animal experiments are integral to modern medicine.

In addition to questioning how much humans can learn from studies like the U of M's hamster research, In Defense of Animals also criticizes the fact that taxpayer dollars are used to fund NIH grants. But Willoughby argues that "science fuels understanding of the world, and ultimately generates novel findings, which leads to new products and industry." She points out that many studies have found a correlation between the amount of money a country spends on scientific research and economic prosperity.

Finally, in response to concerns about animals suffering needlessly in experiments like the hamster study, Willoughby pointed out that the U of M has an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee charged with making sure animals don't undergo unnecessary distress.

"Scientists like myself need to work much harder at educating the public about exactly what we do, and why it's important," Willoughby concludes.

See also:
-- University of Minnesota makes most ridiculous animal research list

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