Student says federal agency to conduct review of BU neuroscience lab

The National Institutes of Health is called to review the learning and behavior lecture and lab protocol. Photo courtesy of Wikamedia Commons.

By Caitlyn Meisner | Staff Writer

The National Institutes of Health will be conducting a review of the protocol in the learning and behavior lecture and lab after Austin junior Tanish Singh complained about a lack of transparency, Singh said.

The Baylor Lariat reached out to the NIH for confirmation and received an email that said, “The NIH Office of Extramural Research does not discuss individual institutions and any allegations of non-compliance with the Public Health Service Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.”

Singh said he was told by the NIH that it would look into the concerns he raised.

The lecture and lab (PSY/NSC 3320) focus on examining human and animal learning and behavior within a nature-nurture framework through the use of rats. The lab teaches students how to condition a rat to pull a lever on command to get a sip of water.

Singh said he was very concerned when he learned that at the end of the lab, the rats will be euthanized. He said he was unaware of this when he registered and while participating in the class.

“We were told the rats would never be harmed in any way or form,” Singh said. “If they are harmed, we fail the class. It was a pretty clear expectation that the rats would be taken care of.”

Out of concern for the rats, Singh said he contacted the NIH as a last-ditch effort after his professor told him to stop talking about the issue and forget about it.

“The NIH is actually the organization that oversees everything, so they’re like the ultimate say,” Singh said. “I just took a shot in the dark, and nothing else was working, so it’s worth a try to talk to these big guns.”

Singh said the NIH responded to him two days after his inquiry, and they had a conversation on Nov. 30. He said the people he spoke to at the NIH were chiefly concerned with the lack of information given to students about the euthanasia and Baylor protocol.

Singh said the people at the NIH were also concerned about compliance with protocol that states the use of animals must be maximized to ensure the lowest number of rats possible is used.

The guidelines for ethical conduct in the Care and Use of Nonhuman Animals in Research states that under experimental procedures, researchers should maximize the welfare of the animal and the amount of data collected from each subject — compatible with the goals of the research, in sound scientific practice.

Singh said the conversation with the NIH moved to whether Baylor can or has to euthanize the animals.

The guidelines state — under experimental procedures — that when euthanasia is appropriate, “either as a requirement of the research or because it constitutes the most humane form of disposition,” it must be done humanely to ensure immediate death.

In the lab manual that is given to students, there is a section for frequently asked questions. One of those questions is, “What happens to these rats when the lab is finished?”

“These rats belong to Baylor University and they are used by other Baylor researchers for numerous other purposes (e.g., breeding, research and other experimentation),” the lab manual reads. “Rest assured however that all animal research at Baylor University is conducted using ethical and humane guidelines and under the supervision of Baylor’s Animal Care and Use Committee.”

Singh said there was a rumor spreading among his classmates that the rats would be euthanized at the end of the lab. He said some of the teaching assistants in the course were telling their sections this news, which later got passed on to the other sections.

“When I found out, I didn’t believe it,” Singh said. “I thought, ‘That’s crazy, right?’ My immediate reaction was that I had been betrayed in a sense because my whole life I’ve dedicated to protecting life. I got kind of duped into a situation where I’m complicit in killing a life.”

After he learned of this, Singh said he immediately emailed his professor — Dr. Hugh Riley, senior lecturer and undergraduate program director of the psychology and neuroscience department.

Singh said he met with Riley and asked why students were not told this information. He said Riley replied that it was better for students to not know.

Riley declined to comment on this matter to The Baylor Lariat.

“This has been happening for years, but nobody knows about it,” Singh said. “It’s really troubling because it’s not in the lab manual.”

Dr. Ben Schwartz, lecturer in psychology and neuroscience, also teaches the course and declined to comment to The Baylor Lariat.

Singh said he asked both Riley and Dr. N. Bradley Keele, the interim department chair of psychology and neuroscience, to stop the euthanasia of the rats, but was rejected.

Keele said backlash against euthanasia of the rats happens from time to time.

“We tell students all the time that there is a very careful process of approval, that we are in 100% compliance with federal law,” Keele said. “There is an approval process to anything that we do, and we follow those protocols very strictly. That’s the job of the [Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC)].”

Keele is the director of the IACUC at Baylor. The organization reviews protocols to ensure the research and educational programs at Baylor are in accordance with the Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, the Animal Welfare Act and regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Keele said the university is bound by federal law and approved protocol to euthanize the animals when the lab is complete.

“We operate 100% to comply with all local, state and federal laws,” Keele said. “The euthanasia of the animals in the learning and behavior lab is what we have to do to remain compliant.”

The protocol, as outlined by the NIH, states that if animals would otherwise suffer severe/chronic pain or distress that cannot be relieved, they should be painlessly killed at the end of said procedure. Keele pointed to this policy as Baylor’s guideline on what to do with the rats.

Keele said the process to amend the protocol of the rats would be a long one. He said a proposal of a new protocol must go under a committee, which likely will take three to four weeks, assuming there is only one round of review.

Keele also said the department is seriously considering two alternative options to euthanasia.

“We asked, ‘Do we make changes to the lab manual or in some other way inform students of the final disposition of animals at the end of the lab?'” Keele said. “Secondly, reevaluate the possibility of a [student] adoption program.”

Singh said he was interested in adopting his rat and taking it home with him, but he again was rejected due to liability reasons.

Keele said this issue is a good teaching moment on the standard operating procedure for students who want to pursue animal research.

If this issue causes any personal distress, contact the Baylor Counseling Center at 254-710-2467 or dial its 24/7 number at 833-969-3998. It can also be reached by email at or at its physical offices in the Dutton parking garage and the second floor of the McLane Student Life Center.