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Case Studies

Durham University undertakes a broad range of projects involving animals, including licensed, laboratory based research and observational research. Examples of our research involving animals are below, together with some of our policies which illustrate our commitment to the principles of reduction, replacement and refinement in animal research.

Welfare policies

The professionally staffed laboratory animal facility at Durham University has introduced introduced a range of policies to enhance the welfare of animals in its care.  Durham is committed to the principles of the ‘3Rs’ (reduction, replacement and refinement), which collectively aim to ensure that the use of animals in research is kept to a minimum, and that high standards of welfare are in place where it is necessary for animals to be involved.  These policies reflect best practices within the sector and support the principle of ‘Refinement’ which focuses on minimising pain and suffering and improving welfare.  Practices such as single use of hypodermic needles have been introduced to minimise any possible pain during procedures.  Our environmental enrichment practices are designed to support the best possible quality of life for animals resident in the unit, though housing animals in social groups or pairs where safe to do so, and providing other forms of stimulation within their cages.

Single use needles policy

Environmental enrichment

Case Study: Improving treatment for memory loss

Rat in behavioural experimentBy developing and utilising new behavioural tasks for rats, the ‘Memory in the Rat’ project is enabling experts in the department of Psychology to increase our understanding of how memory is stored and maintained in the brain. Researchers are using the tasks to assess types of memory that are critically impaired in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and in ageing, and to make careful and selective damage to particular systems in the brain to test hypotheses about how these systems store and represent different types of memory.

By understanding how and where in the brain specific types of memory are stored, we can better target drug therapies to these regions, increasing our chances of being able to improve memory in our old age and in disorders where memory becomes impaired (such as Alzheimer’s disease).

A 5 year project (2015-2020) was funded through an InnovateUK grant with Campden Instruments and the NC3Rs CRACK IT scheme, which has enabled researchers to develop a new apparatus for behavioural testing. This has significantly reduced the number of animals needed, as well as improving the reliability of the information gained from the tests, providing better understanding of the processes underlying memory.

(Image by NC3Rs)

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Case Study: Understanding how we learn

Mouse in behavioural studyExperts in the Department of Psychology are investigating the psychological processes and neural bases of learning and memory. The ‘Time-dependent mechanisms in learning and memory’ project will help to identify the psychological mechanisms responsible for long-term and short-term memory and how these processes influence the strength and nature of learning. It will also investigate the brain areas that are important for these processes and look at the role of particular receptors in these areas.

The project will provide information that will advance our knowledge of how learning is achieved in the brain. In addition, identifying the psychological processes and parts of the brain responsible for normal cognition will aid our understanding of abnormal cognitive processes that occur in neuropsychiatric diseases.

This five year project (2018-2023) has received funding from BBSRC, Royal Society, and Experimental Psychology Society and will involve rats and mice.

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Case study: Disease recognition in mandrills

Female mandrill grooming male mandrillOur project “Selection to Outsmart the Germs: The Evolution of Disease Recognition and Social Cognition” aimed to test whether mandrills use visual, acoustic, or olfactory cues to recognise when conspecifics are infected with parasites (“disease recognition”).

Mandrills are large monkeys that inhabit the dense equatorial forest of Central Africa. They live in unusually large groups with complex sociality which is thought to have selected for their multi-modal signalling. The mandrill signalling system integrates visual, acoustic, and olfactory cues, each of which modalities could convey infection status, making them an excellent study species for this project.

We studied a semifree-ranging colony of mandrills at the Centre International de Recherches Médicales, Franceville (CIRMF), Gabon. We took digital photos, recorded vocalisations, and collected faecal samples, ectoparasites, and odour samples from mandrills in a semi-free ranging colony in Gabon before and after they were treated with anti-parasite medications as part of their routine annual health checks.

Mandrills are listed as vulnerable on the 2015 IUCN Red List. This project does not use any wild mandrills and will not affect wild populations. However, our findings may lead to improvements in our understanding of disease transmission, and more efficient conservation initiatives.

This project is led by Prof Jo Setchell (Durham University) and Dr Sharon Kessler (Stirling University, previously at Durham) in collaboration with expert primate veterinarians at CIRMF, Gabon, parasite ecologists at the Institute of Vertebrate Biology, Czech Academy of Sciences, experts in chemical communication at Wolverhampton University, and experts in ectoparasites at Georgia Southern University, USA. The mandrill colony is maintained by the Primate Centre, CIRMF, Gabon. Data collection was funded by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action, a Durham University Capital Equipment grant and a Durham University seedcorn grant. Data analyses are ongoing.

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Case study: Spatial memory neurons in health and in Alzheimer’s disease

Researchers in the Department of Psychology are working to discover and understand networks of neurons in the brain that enable spatial memory. An early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is a marked decline in spatial memory, e.g. getting lost or misplacing things.  A region of the brain called the subiculum, which has evolved to be very large in humans, degenerates very early in Alzheimer’s disease. Accordingly, to further understand Alzheimer’s disease, it makes sense to study neurons in the subiculum that code spatial information.

The researchers discovered a new type of spatial neuron, which remembers how far away and in what direction key objects are located, in the subiculum. Lord Winston, Professor of Science & Society at Imperial College London, said “This discovery gives a possible insight into certain kinds of dementia which are now of massive importance. The idea that loss or change of such cells might be an early biomarker of disease could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective therapies for one of the most intractable medical conditions”.

This five year project (2018-2023) has received Research Grant funding from the BBSRC. This enables the Neuraclin conference, which aims to bring together researchers and clinicians, and research on animals and humans, on topics such as Alzheimer’s disease and Epilepsy.

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