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Ethical Issues Regarding the Use of Invertebrates in Education

Our experiments are not philosophically perfect and without controversy; however, we believe the benefits outweigh the cost due to the inaccessibility of neuroscience in our current age. We have received several messages from adults and parents of children with neurological afflictions thanking us for making neuroscience easier to understand. We are constantly surveying the animal kingdom for easier and less invasive ways of unequivocally demonstrating neural activity. The cockroach leg preparation is the best we have found so far.

Some disagree, and that is important. Our methods raise many ethical questions including

  • Are animal experiments for educational purposes valid?
  • What is the proper way to treat fellow creatures of the Earth?

In our classroom demonstrations we do discuss these ethical positions and take them seriously. Here we outline our ethical stance on the use of insects for education.

Student consent of experiments

When we visit high school classrooms to do workshops, we give the students and their parents a form the day before. Here is an excerpt from it:

The equipment to be used, as well as the lessons to be followed, are experimental prototypes currently under refinement. The experiments that you will conduct are identical to or are variations on the procedures that you have seen demonstrated in class: invertebrates will be anesthetized and prepared for recording, nerve signals will be recorded, and various stimuli (tactile, thermal, light) will be applied to the preparation...
Please note that this is a research project designed for the purpose of improving education. You will benefit by gaining additional information about the nervous system and about the proper care of live animals (invertebrates) in research....
Risks are minimal:
  • Some sharp tools (pins and scissors) will be used (you will receive proper instruction in their use);
  • The invertebrates are not poisonous, do not sting or bite, and were purchased from commercial suppliers or raised in the laboratory expressly for this use;
  • You might experience mild emotional discomfort caused by exposure to the invertebrates (cockroaches or earthworms) or by the surgery (removal of a cockroach leg or exposure of the earthworm nervous system – both done while the animal is anesthetized and following scientifically accepted and humane procedures). If such discomfort occurs you will be free to stop participating at any time without penalty.
Your participation is entirely voluntary. If you decide not to participate there will be no negative effect on you or your relationship with your teacher...

We do not want the students to be surprised by our experiments. Instead, we invite them to consciously participate in neuroscience by forming hypotheses and testing these with experiments.

These experiments allow us an opportunity to discuss the ethical use of animals in science. When using our insects, the cockroaches/crickets/earthworms are anesthetized before surgery. We discuss with students why we use anesthesia.

Addressing specific criticisms of our work

We sometimes receive criticism for our work. That is understandable. In this section, we will describe some of the common claims/criticisms, and respond to each point by point.

Criticism: “This does not enable learning and is simply a show-off demo that abuses animals.”

We have recently published a peer-reviewed paper in PLoS ONE showing that our tools increase understanding of neuroscience concepts.

Dagda RK, Thalhauser RM, Dagda R, Marzullo TC, Gage GJ (2013) Using Crickets to Introduce Neurophysiology to Early Undergraduate Students. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education (JUNE), Fall 2013, 12(1):A66-A74.
Marzullo TC, Gage GJ (2012) The SpikerBox: A Low Cost, Open-Source BioAmplifier for Increasing Public Participation in Neuroscience Inquiry. PLoS ONE 7(3) e30837. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030837. PMID: 22470415 PMCID: PMC3310049.

We have not directly tested whether our tools enable better retention of neuroscience concepts and critical science thinking compared to traditional lecture/book based teachings. However, there are a number of studies that have been published over the past several decades noting the "hands-on" teaching is an improvement on lecture based teaching.

Stohr-Hunt P. (1996) An Analysis of Frequency of Hands-on Experience and Science Achievement. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 33: 101-109
Geier R, Blumenfeld PC, Marx RW, Krajcik JS, Fishman B, et al. (2008) Standardized Test Outcomes for Students Engaged in Inquiry-Based Science Curricula in the Context of Urban Reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 45: 922–939.
Guthrie JT, Wigfield A, Barbosa P, Perencevich KC, Taboada A, et al. (2004) Increasing Reading Comprehension and Engagement Through Concept-Oriented Reading Instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology 96: 403–423.

We can also defer to professional educators themselves. Since more and more high schools, colleges, and universities are using our equipment to teach fundamental neuroscience, this argues that our tools do enable learning and are useful teaching materials. To get the current number of educational users, please visit

Criticism: “Animal Experiments have no place in educational demonstrations.”

The use of animals for human benefit is a complex philosophical field, with some feeling we can do whatever we will with animals and others feeling that even having animals as pets is inhumane. While biology demonstrations “for fun” should obviously not be done, given that our demonstrations are to teach science/physiology in an interactive way, we believe the animal experiment is of benefit. We acknowledge this is a controversial claim.

At Backyard Brains we adhere to standards placed within the scientific community. More so, we also teach those standards to ensure that the people using our equipment have been educated in what is ethically expected of them when conducting live animal research. All of our scientific team has had professional training from our respective research universities in live animal research ethics.

Criticism: “There are better ways of teaching neuroscience that do not use animals."

To train scientists and teach science, we believe it’s best to use actual experimentation and observation of the world.

Criticism: “You should not do educational experiments on sentient animals.”

Sentience is a difficult term to define, but it’s generally used to mean having a sense of oneself from others, having an internal dialogue, etc. Where in the animal kingdom nervous systems become complex enough to become ‘self-aware” is unknown. Generally, other mammals and some birds are “probably” sentient, but the invertebrate world is much more dubious. Perhaps cuttlefish and octopi may be sentient, but given our current knowledge such is a stretch for insects and worms.

Criticism: “You are causing pain in the animals and that is inhumane."

We make sure to anesthetize all our animals when we do experiments, and we explain this to students. We actually don’t know if insects feel pain, but we do make the assumption that they do, which is why we anesthetize them in the first place. Whether the cockroach feels pain when it wakes up from the surgery and detects a missing leg, we do not know. All we is know is that the wound heals, the cockroaches are walking around within hours, eating lettuce, making more cockroaches, and if they are juvenile, the leg grows back. It’s very important to avoid anthropomorphizing the cockroach with thoughts like “If I do not want my own leg cut off, then the cockroach does not want its leg cut off.”

We recommend the following RadioLab show that extensively interviews an entomologist describing his own problems anthropomorphizing insects:

Criticism: “You are objectifying the cockroach."

Objectification in this context claims that when we do an experiment on the cockroach, we are viewing the cockroach as a thing to do with what we will with no concern for it’s well-being. We fail to recognize the cockroach as a living thing with its own right to autonomy.

Quite to the contrary, we find it poetic that the cockroach is actually the best preparation we have found for showing neural activity, as it gives people a newfound appreciation for these creatures rather than as simple pests. We also ensure that we anesthetize the creatures when we do experiments. We understand that some may see that no matter what we do, we are still objectifying the cockroach by doing experiments.

Criticism: “If a cockroach brain really is similar to a human brain, you shouldn’t be doing these experiments.”

A cockroach has a nervous system consisting of neurons that fire action potentials and secrete neurotransmitters. As do we. Given that we are studying basic concepts of neurophysiology (e.g. rate coding, electrical excitability, neuropharmacology), we can use the cockroach as a model organism.

If, however, we were studying language acquisition, decision making, declarative memory, empathy, and other “higher functions,” we could not make the claim that cockroaches are similar to humans. All scientists who do public outreach have to balance being overly technically precise while also being clear and brief when explaining concepts to audiences of novices.

Criticisms/Questions Regarding the RoboRoach

We receive a lot of inquiries regarding the RoboRoach. We answer some common questions/criticisms below.

Question: Are you shocking or hurting the cockroach?

We send small amounts of current to the neurons. This method is called microstimulation, and is used to make nearby neurons fire action potentials or "spikes". This is not an electric shock, nor does it cause pain. We can verify this by the fact that the cockroach can adapt to the micro stimulation in a few minutes, and ignore it completely, something that cannot be done with painful stimuli.

Criticism: Modifying a living creature to make a toy is wrong.

The RoboRoach circuit is not a toy. This new bluetooth version is a powerful low-cost tool for studying neural circuits, allowing for students to make discoveries. High school students in New York, for example, have discovered random stimulation causes much slower adaptation times. We have scientist and high school educator colleagues who are mentoring students in novel behavioral experiments using the RoboRoach circuit. Some highlights will be posted on our website soon.

Criticism: This is pseudoscience.

Investigating neural circuits with electrical microstimulation has a rich history going back more than 150 years. Using this tool to study electrical excitability of neurons, adaptation times, and neural interfaces will help create the next generation of neural engineers, scientists, and physicians to tackle the very real problem of finding treatments to neural diseases. One in five people will be affected by a neural affliction at some point in their lives, and we have very little treatments to almost any neural affliction you can name (spinal cord injury, Alzheimer's, Schizophrenia, Depression, Multiple Sclerosis, etc…). Our tools enable students to begin hands-on learning about neuroscience at a much earlier age (high school vs. grad school), giving such future scientists and engineers a 5-10 year head start on tackling such grand problems.

Criticism: This enables and encourages kids to harm animals.

The cockroach is anesthetized during the surgery to avoid the risk of the cockroach experiencing pain (though it is debatable whether they experience pain at all), and the cockroach adapts to the stimulation rapidly. The 55 Hz stimulation we use is the same frequency used in electrical stimulation to treat human diseases such as Parkinson’s.

We have sold analog versions of the RoboRoach for the last three years. Teenagers who have bought this circuit have often done the experiments under the guidance of their parents as an educational experience. These students typically want to pursue careers in medicine or neuroscience.

This page was last modified on 21 October 2013, at 21:52.