11 Animals That Have Changed the History of Neurological Science

Here are some of the most important animals in the development of our understanding of neuroscience.
Christopher McFadden

Whatever your views on animal testing for scientific research, they have helped us make some very real breakthroughs in our understanding in fields like neuroscience. By getting to grips with the basic fundamentals of certain aspects of biology using animal analogs for humans, we have been able to harvest various therapeutic solutions and potential cures for some very serious diseases and disorders. 

Most of this was only made possible thanks to the sacrifice made by countless animal stand-ins for human beings. If you don't agree with animal testing, perhaps you could volunteer your own living body (and mind) for research purposes in the future? 

Yeah, we thought so.


Which animals have had the biggest influence on neurological science?

So, without further ado, here are some of the most important animals in the history of neuroscience. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. Rats are incredibly important to scientific research of all kinds, including neuroscience

neuroscience research rats
Source: madaise/Flickr

Rodents, like rats, are one of the most important animals used in a vast swathe of scientific research -- especially in the field of neuroscience. In fact, rats have been used for scientific research for more than 200 years.

After the mid-1980s, when companion animals like cats were phased out, rodents like rats became the go-to animal model for a lot of neuroscientific research.

As instruments became progressively smaller thanks to miniaturization, rats became ideal testbeds for research. Rodents, like rats, also have relatively short lifespans, enabling research into aging and its effects on the nervous system convenient and time-efficient for scientific studies.

Studies on rats have provided insights into neural regeneration, intelligence studies, and many other breakthroughs in science. To date, thirty Noble Prizes in science have been awarded based on research using rats. 

2. Rabbits helped develop a vaccine for rabies

neuroscience research rabbits
Source: Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar/Flickr

While rabbits are primarily used for studying toxicity and safety testing of substances like drugs, chemicals, or medical devices, they have also proved to be vitally important for neuroscientific research.

In fact, one of the earliest scientific breakthroughs came thanks to the work of Louis Pasteur. He is particularly well-renowned for his work on a vaccine for rabies. 

This highly contagious infection devastates a host's nervous system and enters the body through being bitten by infected animals or through saliva entering through an open wound.

"When an extract from the spinal column of a rabid dog was injected into healthy animals, symptoms of rabies appeared. By studying the tissues of infected rabbits, Pasteur was able to produce an attenuated form of the virus, which he later used to develop a vaccine against the disease. " - understandinganimalresearch.org.uk.

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3. Mice are very similar to humans in many ways

neuroscience research mice
Source: Hy'Shqa/Flickr

Much like rats, mice have been a "workhouse" of scientific research, especially in neuroscience. Mice actually form somewhere in the region of 75% of all animal research and, amazingly, have comparable human genes in 98% of their genome.

For the very same reasons as rats are now a very common test animal for research, they are very important to neuroscientific research today. 

Mice have very similar reproductive and nervous systems to human beings and suffer from many of the same diseases. From cancer to anxiety, mice are very useful test-animals for finding human treatments for various disorders.

4. Dogs are a man's best experimental-friend

Dogs are not only one of the first domesticated animals, but they have allowed us to make leaps and bounds in our understanding of neuroscience. Apart from research into human-dog bonding, the psychological rehabilitative benefits of dogs with heart-failure patients, research on dogs have helped with some important treatments for major diseases. 

One example was a 2012 study into the use of cell transplants for treating spinal cord injury. The trial was conducted on pet dogs with spinal injuries and showed some very interesting results. 

5. Pigs have been of major importance to neuroscientific research

neuroscience research pigs
Source: -tarat-/Flickr

Pigs have historically been another important animal in scientific research. With regard to neuroscience, studies on pigs have led to some major breakthroughs in various areas.

One of the most notable was the identification of hypothalamic hormones. Back in the 1950s, research by Roger Guillemain and Andrew von Schally identified that the hypothalamus was responsible for hormonal release from the pituitary gland.

This research was directly transferrable to human beings and allowed researchers and clinicians to make important discoveries into the endocrine system and how it relates to some diseases. They won the Nobel prize for this work in 1977.

6. Monkeys have helped us combat Parkinson's disease

neuroscience research monkeys
Source: Arwen/Flickr

Monkeys are another incredibly important group of animals for neuroscientific research. They have a very close similarity to human beings genetically, and physiologically and so are almost perfect analogies for humans.

Some of the most notable neuroscientific breakthroughs from monkey research are significant breakthroughs in our understanding and treatment for Parkinson's disease and tremors. They make near-perfect models for the disorder and have helped develop some essential therapeutic techniques for it. 

As an aside, given the current, now confirmed, global pandemic of COVID-19, monkeys, have historically played a major role in identifying and creating vaccines for other coronaviruses like SARS.

7. Chickens have proved invaluable for neuroscientific research

neuroscience research chicken
Source: Lacey White/Flickr

Did you know chickens are the closest living relative to certain species of dinosaur? Chickens have also proved to be vitally important for many areas of neuroscientific research. Being vertebrates their developmental process is very similar to our own.

One of the most notable has been the improvement of our understanding of the development of the nervous system.

Primarily how cells migrate and differentiate over time. 

8. Frogs have been very important too

neuroscience research frogs
Source: John Fowler/Flickr

Frogs, as it turns out, have helped us understand some fundamental aspects of neuroscience. Studies on frogs helped us, for example, were used to show that nerve impulses affect the heart using a chemical transmission.

This was the first evidence of neurotransmission ever seen.

Studies on them also enabled us to uncover the fact that acetylcholine is responsible for relaying nerve impulses to animals' muscles. Frogs also helped us understand the development of things like the neural plate. 

9. Cats have been critical to early neuroscience research

neuroscience research cats
Source: anaa yoo/Flickr

Cats have historically been used for neuroscientific research prior to the mid-1980s. They were ideal test subjects as their size, and their robust nature meant that they could withstand extensive surgery. 

They are also large enough to wear or accommodate bulky instrumentation and were also inexpensive animals to breed and keep. But, in the mid-1980s new regulations regarding animal testing substantially increased the economic cost and administrative burden for lab testing on felines. 

Public opinion also went against using so-called companion animals in scientific research. After this period, attention shifted more to rodents.

Research on cats has fundamentally improved our understanding of the workings of the nervous system. Most notably, how the visual system needs light to develop as well as the subtle effects of aging on the nervous system.

10. Ferrets are awesome and scientifically useful

neuroscience research ferrets
Source: Shutter Ferret/Flickr

Ferrets are amazing creatures. They are incredibly smart and, as it turns out, have been instrumental in certain engineering projects including avionics in aircraft.

But, they have also been of great value for expanding our knowledge of neuroscience. Studies on ferrets have allowed us to understand the hypothalamic-pituitary portal system, visual and auditory systems of mammals, including humans.

They have also enabled us to help understand the size of human brains. Ferrets also make great pets, FYI.

11. Zebrafish are most useful, it turns out

neuroscience research zebrafish
Source: Oregan State University/Flickr

And last, but by no means least, is the zebrafish. This incredibly useful little fish is one of the most frequently used model organisms for a lot of genetic and developmental studies.

This is because, primarily, that their embryos or transparent enabling systematic study of them fairly easy. Their entire genetic sequence was also mapped as early as 2011, and their genome has many homologs with that of humans.

With regards to neuroscience, testing on zebrafish has led to some major breakthroughs in our understanding of things like Alzheimer's disease, autism, sleep, heart disease, and some cancers.

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