By David Joel Miller.
Why don’t the things we find in mouse studies work for humans?
Quite often these days we hear about a new research study that sounds like someone discovered a cure for some disease or a drug that helps a particular condition. I and other writers read these research studies. The news media may get hold of it and there go the articles about how someone may have found a cure for a particular disorder. And then nothing happens. Worse than nothing, eventually that medication or procedure is tried on a human and it just doesn’t work.
Why is it so much easier to find medications for mice than for humans?
Recently Dr. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) wrote an editorial on just that topic, titled “Lost in Translation.”
Let me preface this by saying I am a writer and a talk therapist, not a research scientist. My way of understanding and telling you about these complicated science things is to create an analogy that helps explain them. Hopefully, my analogy is not too far off. For the full story in the technical language check out the original editorial.
Mice brains are like human brains, sort of. We have structures in our brains very much like those in the mice brains and nervous system. Additionally, we have a whole lot more things in our brains.
Think of this as trying to evaluate new designs for cars by trying them out on bicycles.
Yes, bicycles have wheels and a steering mechanism vaguely like a car, but that car has a lot of parts not found on the bicycle. So what might work when installed on the bike, may be worthless on an auto going 65 miles per hour.
Our human brains are not all one giant thing. There are a host of parts and pieces in that brain. Some of the things that go wrong in the human brain could be because one part is not working right or is too big, too small, or because that part is not talking (Communicating) with other parts correctly.
We can test our new med on the mouse but since he lacks some of those parts that the human brain has the result in humans is different. Over the last few years, researchers have found drugs that could cure most mental illnesses in mice. Unfortunately, most of these discoveries did not work in humans.
One solution to this problems is to test new medications and procedures on animals that are more like humans. Non-human Primates are one possibility. The larger the primate and the closer their brain is to humans the more that med should work in the primate’s brain the same way it would work on a human. But there are problems with this approach.
First, we have the question of ethics. Is it right or necessary to test new drugs on primates? In fact, there have been some suggestions, mostly well founded, that too much stuff is tested on animals when we already know what it will do and this causes these animals needless suffering.
If you have a family member who has Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s you are probably OK with us testing some drugs on animals that might save your family members life or their cognitive function. Considering the number of mice and rats that are poisoned each year for health and sanitation reasons it seems hard to object to research on rodents as long as it is done in a humane way. I will not try here to define humane and will leave that to the reader’s sensibilities.
Far fewer people will be willing to see us test a host of drugs on primates, especially the big primates, like Gorillas and Baboons, which act so much like humans, unless this is absolutely necessary.
Another possibility is getting a lot of use these days. We can grow cells in the lab and then test medications on those lab-grown cells. This works some of the time but has some of the same issues as the mice brain. What works in the lab, in a test tube or petri dish, does not always work the same way in humans.
These same issues of transferability or “generalizability” occur in behavioral or psychological studies in humans. We try something with a few dozen college students at one particular school and then someone suggests that this same approach will work with – say – inner city kids in another country.
With mental health treatments, there is, here in the United States, a registry of things we call “Evidenced Based Practices.” For medications, there are long testing processes before a drug can be sold for use on humans.
Keep these issues in mind as you read articles about psychological research, whether it is in the counselorssoapbox blog or elsewhere. I will do my best to tell you about new research and what we know or think we know about mental and emotional issues and their treatment but that “what we know” may change as more and better research comes in. Even with its shortcomings, the newest research says we know far more about humans, their brains, nervous systems and how to help them than we knew even a couple of years ago. Let’s see where the future goes.
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