“Science” = Slam Head Repeatedly, Then Hang By Tail?

The Rise for Animals Team, April 11, 2024

Is it science if you slam someone’s head repeatedly, dangle them upside down, and watch what happens? That would be a “yes” according to animal researchers. 

Animal Partisan recently obtained and shared with Rise for Animals internal records and a published paper concerning “[r]eptitive mild traumatic brain injury” (“TBI”), mouse experiments undertaken at Florida State University (“FSU”) that involved just this: slamming the heads of mice and then hanging them upside down.

In February, we broke down why TBI research on animals — including, of course, baby pigs — does not benefit humans. All of that science is directly relevant to FSU’s research, as well. 

At FSU, eight-week-old male mice, who had been exposed to nicotine in-utero, were “subjected to closed-head repetitive” TBI for five days using an “electromagnetically driven stereotaxic device”. In other words, researchers used a mechanical apparatus to damage the brains of mice with blunt force for five consecutive days.

This presentation slide illustrates just how researchers caused traumatic brain injuries in mice for five consecutive days. (Source)

But, horrendously, the traumatization of murine brains may not even have been the cruelest part of FSU’s experiment.  

Next, the researchers repeatedly subjected the mice to “tail suspension tests” for which they “secured” each mouse “using adhesive tape . . . to [a] rod by its tail” and “suspended upside down” each mouse “by its tail for a period of 6 min[utes]”. 

The “tail suspension tests” portion of the experiment was intended to explore the popular, though disproven, concept of “learned helplessness”.

The FSU researchers offer that the “tail suspension test” “is based on the observation that mice will exhibit bouts of mobility and immobility in a futile attempt to escape the stress of tail suspensions” and that mice were “considered immobile when [they] hung passively and completely motionless.” As such, this test was distinctly premised upon “learned helplessness”, a theory that evolved from experiments in which dogs were exposed to electrical shocks1This article states that experiments of learned helplessness involving dogs and electric shocks “would be forbidden” today. In the United States, this is not true.  from which they stopped trying to escape. Explain researchers: 

Learned helplessness . . . is a phenomenon in which a subject (human or animal) that is exposed repeatedly to an inescapable stressor develops a behavioral syndrome in which it shows reduced capacity to escape the same stressor when it is delivered in circumstances where escape is possible.

The experiments that have evolved from the original dog experiments, in the words of a retired animal researcher, “involve[] just picking up a mouse by its tail and hanging it upside down. Mice eventually give up struggling and trying to right their position and just hang there.” When they do this, researchers conclude that they are depressed, even though “there are other reasons mice might stop doing these things. For example, they could be tired or simply bored, but such possibilities aren’t as interesting to scientists who want to study depression.” 

Experiments involving “learned helplessness” have not only been criticized by much of the scientific community — they have also been debunked by at least one of the theory’s pioneers. 

Original “learned helplessness” researcher Steven Maier has proclaimed publicly that his “original theory had it all backward*: We don’t learn helplessness. The brain assumes helplessness when exposed to adverse conditions. If we want to feel that we have any control over our own outcomes, we have to learn that we have power . . . a passive, defensive strategy–or simply trying to endure the worst until it ends–is actually the most hardwired, instinctive biological response we have to bad experiences.” (And, it only gets more complicated from here, because it has also been shown that “there are interindividual and interstrain differences in the susceptibility to learned helplessness, some of which have been associated with the animal’s copying style to stress.”)

The question of control (or the absence thereof) dovetails with other revisionist research findings, including that learned helplessness “is related to people’s beliefs about control over life events” and “does not occur in [] subjects that receive the same stressor in conditions where the stressor can be actively avoided”. 

FSU researchers entirely ignored this informing science when they intentionally subjected mice to learned helplessness experiments in which the mice had no means of escape and, therefore, lacked any control. Lest there be any doubt, the researchers described that each “tail was threaded through polycarbonate tubing . . . to prevent the mouse from climbing its tail during the test” – ostensibly, of course, because they could have reached the tape and freed themselves (i.e., exercised control) by climbing their own tails.

Scientists have also been clear that animal research is not and cannot be useful for understanding human depression.

Scientists have come to characterize “diseases like depression” as “primarily disorders of human conscious experience” and to assert plainly that “what we are measuring in mice isn’t a model of human depression” – that “[w]e think we can make animals depressed by drowning them, electrocuting them, starving them, making them fearful, and abusing them in countless ways”, but “[s]till, they are never going to be depressed in the same way as a human, and they will never be useful in this regard.” 

Even the FSU researchers themselves effectively concede this point in their paper, characterizing the tail suspension test as “a test of depression-like behavior in rodents” – as opposed, it seems obvious, to a test of depression itself.

Given FSU’s reliance on unethical exploitation of sentient beings and a thoroughly disproven experimental model, it may be unsurprising that its research was also lacking on additional fronts.

By virtue of examples only:

  • The researchers were merely trying to recreate human-specific observations in mice. Setting aside the question of how recreating human findings in a non-human species should be expected to help humans, the authors admitted in a statement that was struck from the final research paper that their findings were consistent with existing clinical work (meaning, research involving the very species of ultimate interest: humans), and they cited multiple human studies. Additionally, the study’s take-away that “depression should be a routine part of post-concussion management for all individuals” with minor TBI had already been established in humans prior to the FSU study.
  • The study’s design was scientifically unsound for multiple reasons, including that:
    • The researchers repeatedly and generally reference “depression-like” behavior, even though previous studies concluded that “no experimental paradigm can be a model of depression in some general sense”.
    • Mice, FSU’s chosen experimental subjects, have been proven not to be predictive of human diseases or human behavioral or therapeutic responses. Furthermore, and with direct relevance to FSU’s study, researchers have known for over 20 years that “[a]n important influence on the degree of helplessness shown by people is how they explain the causes of the original uncontrollable events” – yet, of course, other-than-human animals cannot explain their experience to researchers in any language they understand.
    • The mice used were of a genetically-modified strain commonly exploited for “depression research” because of their supposed de-animalization or mechanization; yet, studies have demonstrated that these mice retain their individuality and are far more behaviorally complex than acknowledged by animal researchers.
    • The study relied entirely on male mice, even as the researchers acknowledged an inability to “rule out the effect of sex on behavioral outcomes” and even though (1) the animal research industry itself admits that reliance on “equal representation” between sexes is necessary in research and (2) researchers have concluded that females are “nearly 50% more likely than [males] to develop depression after a . . . TBI” (a focus of the study).

So, dismantling the self-interested and hollow “scientific” facade erected by the FSU researchers, we are left with animal exploitation lacking in any apparent scientific merit. Par for the course in animal research.

These types of exploitations-masquerading-as-science – “slam head repeatedly, then hang by tail” protocols – are incredibly common-place, and neither the mouse nor baby pig TBI experiments we’ve featured are aberrations; rather, they are examples of what’s being done to other-than-humans in laboratories all across the country.

They are also examples of what will continue being done until we (metaphorically) pry the brain bashing devices and wall adhesives away from those who benefit from their use. For this, we — including the over 100 million mice, baby pigs, and other sentient beings being used as means to human “scientific” ends this year alone — need your support.

Help spread the truth about “learned helplessness” by sharing this blog on Facebook and X (Twitter)