Why are Rats Used in Medical Research?

Rodents have long been the preferred species of animal to use in lab research, with experiments on the common brown rat starting around 150 years ago. While there are still many questions regarding the ethics of using live specimens for scientific experimentation, the achievements attributed to the use of rats are undeniable. But why are rats so important to human medicine, and what benefits do they hold over other species?

Rats vs Mice

laboratory-rats-medical-researchWhile white lab mice are often depicted in media as the main species that aids in research, as research becomes increasingly complex, researchers are discovering that mice have some severe drawbacks when used as research models. This is mainly because they are further removed from humans in terms of genetics than rats. Rats are also considered the ideal test subject for a variety of behavioral studies, with some researchers and scientists arguing that rats are capable of understanding and completing more complex tasks than mice are capable.

On top of all these benefits, rats offer more potential for genetic manipulation, which is why transgenic rats are often used in medical research rather than mice. The simple truth is that rats have a far wider range of effective uses in a large variety of research applications than their mouse counterparts.

The Advantages of Rats in Medical Research

The success found through experiments using lab rats is attributed to the amazing comparison in the physiological, anatomical, and genetic similarities found between rodents and humans. These similarities are key in being able to compare the results from rat experiments to the potential effects of the same treatment or condition in human beings.

Rats are also easier and cheaper to feed and house than other suitable creatures, such as primates, due to their smaller size, which also makes them easier to handle and transport too. Rats also reproduce rapidly and have relatively short reproduction cycles, making them readily available at all times. Since genetically sequencing the Brown Norway rat in 2004, it has been shown that most human genes that are linked to disease also have counterparts present in rats, which leads to a better understanding of diseases that afflict humans.

Common Uses for Lab Rats

Rats are commonly used in many avenues of medical research, but one interesting study at the moment is helping researchers understand addiction in humans. Using rats, research has shown that addiction manifests differently in individuals and that compulsive narcotic-seeking efforts continue even in the face of adversity. Throughout this study, researchers were able to show, for the first time,  that long-term exposure to narcotics altered the basolateral amygdala, an area of the brain that has been associated with the connection of stimulation and emotion. Using this same rat model, there has been a completely new path identified in the brain that connects an impulse with a habit.

Rats will continue to play a critical role in medical research for as long as there is research to be carried out and questions to be answered. The lab rat has helped mankind make numerous advances in the understanding and treatment of neural regeneration, diabetes, behavioral studies, cardiovascular medicine, wound healing, transplantation, and space motion sickness, and humanity owes many of our medical advancements to these understated champions of life.

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Last Updated on August 29, 2022 by Marie Benz MD FAAD