In the animal lab, neurobiologist Lisa Genzel tries to make life as pleasant as possible for mice. This is not only nice for mice, but also helps them in their research to better understand the human brain. On Wednesday Genzel will receive the Radboud Science Award for this purpose.
Take off shoes, Crocs and hairnet. Lisa Genzel asks, “Do you have hamsters or mice yourself?” Lab coat is distributed. I had to ask, otherwise you wouldn’t be allowed into the lab. It can spread disease. She leads the way through the corridors of the concrete building and opens the door to her research room.
The contrast with the rest of the building – and the image of the laboratory animal center at all – could hardly be greater. Almost the entire space is filled with a huge maze of transparent hexagons decorated with colorful handicrafts.
In the foreground is a rainbow with a pot of gold. In the right back is a statue of Easter Island. There are also plastic flowers everywhere and there is a red Chinese temple. You can safely call it “comfortable”.
Genzel obviously thinks so, too. She began to cheerfully talk about her research, and how this situation forms the basis of it. We are doing research here into the long-term memory of rats and the effect of sleep on it. The research aims primarily to better understand the healthy brain. In this way, researchers hope to better understand brain disorders such as ADHD, autism, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and anxiety disorders.
To achieve this, researchers in this lab first walked the lab animals around the maze for a while, so that they could create a map in their brains. Creating an imaginary map works the same way in mice as it does in humans. Because special “place cells” in the brain are activated, we know where we are, exactly where we are, and how we are directed: for example, have we been directed to the left or to the right?
By connecting mice brains with electrodes wirelessly to a computer, researchers see these special brain cells light up in turn as lab animals walk through the maze. This data can then be compared to video material of the route the rat took. This way you can see the maze map drawn in the brain, as it were.
The researchers then placed the mice in different places in the maze. There the mice go in search of something tasty, and over time researchers look at how well the animals remember spaces and ornaments as landmarks.
Some videos are shown to illustrate it. And a fact. When a rat is placed in the maze after a few days of training, it first wanders for a while before jumping into a kind of acceleration after a milestone: straight to the reward. The decision is so quick and purposeful that you can almost hear the mouse thinking: “Ah, here I am!”
It may sound simple, but studying in Genzel’s maze is very complex. This ensures that many new studies of the functioning of the brain can be conducted, which form the basis for new insights into brain disorders. That’s one of the reasons Genzel received the Radboud Science Prize on Wednesday, September 28th.
But this is not the only reason. In her research, Genzel is strongly committed to the welfare of laboratory animals. For example, no dietary restrictions are used to motivate the animals to perform the training, but the team uses a special candy that is proven to be effective. Mice also get plenty of toys and enough space and researchers spend a lot of time with the animals.
In addition, her research is designed in such a way that the researchers can collect a lot of data from a small number of mice. This makes a huge difference in the number of lab animals required. Because although the advantages of animal research are certainly seen – think the development of the corona vaccine – the Netherlands is generally critical of animal research.
For example, since 1997 efforts have been made to reduce the use of laboratory animals. At that time by banning animal testing of cosmetics, such as make-up, toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant. Today, research institutions use the 3R method – reduction, refinement and replacement. The Netherlands wants to be a leader in animal-free research again by 2025.
Of course you don’t want to let the animals die unnecessarily.
It also shows disapproval for the current use of lab animals on the same campus. In April of this year, activists drew thousands of crosses on the ground with chalk. These symbolize the deceased laboratory animals that Radboud University used in its research in 2020.
Genzel partially understands the criticism. Of course you don’t want to let the animals die unnecessarily. But in my opinion, sometimes it’s too easy about how many areas of study you can do without doing animal research. I’m researching changes in the brain. I could put people in the MRI scanner to get a snapshot, but that’s it.
Genzel says that animals are really necessary to learn how the brain works over a longer period of time. To achieve this, the animals in their studies would have to die. You need the brain to see if certain proteins are produced in the brain during training. Unfortunately, this cannot be avoided.
She can put this part of her work into perspective. “I think mice have a much better life here than in the wild.” Although they only live for a year in the laboratory and domestic mice can live up to two to three years, mice in the wild die even sooner. “They also get enough to eat here and really enjoy the training: if you give them the chance, they’ll go into the maze on their own.”
Genzel admits that killing animals certainly isn’t a fun part of the job, nor is it for everyone. That’s why we try to prepare everyone as best as possible. We once had a master’s student who had a lot of potential. When she wanted to get her Ph.D., this aspect of the job turned out to be too intense for her. We want to be ahead of that.
Even for those who work in an animal lab, killing lab animals remains challenging. The staff play and cuddle a lot with the animals outside of search hours and thus often bond with them. To make it easier for myself, I often try to spoil the mice the day before the kill. Then I make a feast, because I want to have the feeling that they have a beautiful completed life after all.
It’s an aspect of researchers that, according to Genzelle, is not often looked at. Researchers are often portrayed as mean, bad people who love to hurt animals. While most researchers are true animal lovers. In fact, many are vegetarians.
The fact that researchers care about animals is not only good for the well-being of lab animals, but is also very important for research. “Prefer to examine the animal in a neutral condition as much as possible,” Genzel says. An animal that is kept in a cage that is too small or without entertainment can develop stress or depression-like symptoms. This can affect behavior and the brain, which negatively affects your research.
“It’s also practical for the animals to get used to you,” Genzel says. She puts on a new video. Every time the researcher puts his hand into the maze, the rat runs towards it on its own to be captured. “Certainly if they were so far into the maze, we wouldn’t really be able to get there any other way.”
After the funny shots, Genzel’s tone becomes more serious. We want animals to be healthy, both as humans and as researchers. Society seems to forget this sometimes.
Although these animals may not be that bad, animal experimentation remains an unwelcome way of society. There are now many alternatives. For example, there are computer models that can run simulations and even organoid tissues – so-called organoids – can be grown.
There is also criticism of lab animals from academia. According to Merel Ritskes-Hoitinga, former Professor of Evidence-Based Laboratory Animal Science at Radboudumc and former Director of the Animal Laboratory, we can avoid a lot of animal research if we do more extensive literature research.
“If we can use these kinds of new methods to reduce the number of lab animals, that’s a plus”
Genzel takes a closer look at those suggestions. ‘Do not get me wrong. It’s great that we have these technologies and that they are further developed. We should definitely take advantage of that. But it’s not that you can completely replace animal research with this right now – and in all areas of research.
The research Genzel is currently doing has not been done before. Before you can benefit from simulations or extensive literature studies, you must first collect more data: this is done through animal experiments.
Organisms don’t always offer a solution, according to the researcher. “It’s great that we can make a stomach in a plate, but it’s not really the case that when you eat something, it goes straight to your stomach. The body is so intertwined that testing something on one organ would never be the answer. Of course, you can’t measure behavior in this way at all.
So Genzel thinks technology like this could be a great addition, but it won’t soon take over animal research completely. “I don’t think it’s a big deal at the moment. If we can use these kinds of methods to reduce the number of lab animals, that’s a plus.”
It is also possible to stop research on animals completely. “But then as a society, we will also have to accept the consequences,” says Genzel. “This means that we will not be able to cure all diseases in the future.”