The other day, while surfing the web, my better half came upon this semi-official looking symbol for psychohazards:


The verbiage underneath the symbol seem to indicate conditions that might have serious consequences for one's picture of the world and its contents, or for one's ability to come to knowledge about the world. A philosopher who was so inclined could go to town on this.

However, while this particular icon was new to me, this isn't the first time I've seen the term "psychohazard" in use.

A long time ago, I was an undergraduate with an internship working in a cancer pharmacology lab. My own piece of the research was restricted to tissue culture work -- growing cells in medium in culture flasks, treating the cells with the compounds whose anticancer properties we were exploring, growing them in conditions where they had oxygen or didn't have oxygen, exposing some of them to varying amounts of radiation, plating different cell dilutions in culture dishes, then seeing how they grew (or didn't) after al this treatment by staining the culture dishes and counting the colonies.

There were plenty of ways to mess up, so much of my lab-related stress came from trying to perfect my sterile technique in various ways. Truth be told, I had my share of nights where I dreamt only of pipetting media and cells into the stacks and stacks of culture dishes. Those were not dreams that left me feeling well-rested and energized for another day in the lab.

There was other research going on in the lab, though, that I was around to see, if not participate in. Some of it was in vivo work, to see how the compounds that performed well when tested on cultured tissue cells would work in treating actual tumors growing in mice, not culture flasks. These pieces of the work were pretty important, given that tumor cells in a culture and tumor cells in a tumor can behave in interestingly different ways, not to mention the fact that there's more going on when a drug is introduced to a whole living organism than when it's introduced to cells growing in growth medium. The cell culture work is informative, but it doesn't give you all the information you need to be able to treat the whole living organism with the cancerous cells in it.

The mice that were used in the in vivo research were treated very humanely, with great care taken to ensure that they felt no pain on "tissue harvest day". They were also monitored prior to tissue harvest day to make sure that they weren't experiencing pain or distress from their tumors or from the experimental drugs being administered to them, and they had enrichment to make sure that they weren't bored. But since I was working on cells in dishes, I only saw the mice on tissue culture day.

The lab members who did the tissue harvest and euthanized the mice afterwards were very skilled. They worked very hard to make sure the tissue samples they collected would yield usable data, and they were very attentive to the state of the mice in the process. One effect of this was that "tissue harvest day" was very draining, emotionally as well as physically. Recognizing this, the tissue harvest teams would sometimes take a Sharpie to the red biohazardous waste disposal bags which would, by the end of the harvest, contain the bodies of the euthanized mice, adding something like this:


It looks like a lighthearted doodle, but it was not prompted by anything that felt lighthearted.

The sense I got as a bystander to these procedures is that it was important for the researchers to recognize the stress this aspect of the research put on them. As much as they did to make sure that the animals being used were free of pain and distress, they needed to acknowledge their own distress and do what they could do minimize it.

Mainly, the strategy to minimize researcher distress seemed to be to make sure the in vivo experimentation was done impeccably so that lots of good data could be obtained from the minimum number of mice (thus reducing the total number of tissue harvest days), and to take really good care of the animals. None of the researchers on the team gave any of the others a hard time for feeling drained at the end of the procedure. None of them seemed to feel shy about acknowledging to others in the group that euthanizing the mice left them feeling wrung out.

Yet, to a person, each of these people understood that answering the biomedical questions the lab was ultimately interested in getting to the bottom of -- what compounds could offer effective treatments for cancers in humans -- the in vivo studies were absolutely essential. Studying the effects of the the compounds on cancer cells growing in culture dishes told us something useful, but it wasn't enough. Thus, in some ways, dealing with the emotional burden of tissue harvest day was a way these scientists took one for the team, not just doing intellectual labor but bearing emotional costs to help medical science find good ways to alleviate human suffering.

I'm not sure how many of the people who benefit from biomedical advances recognize this part of what researchers contribute.

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I can certainly appreciate the emotional strain of euthanizing lab animals. I work in an environment in which (human) death is a daily occurrence. I have seen as many as six deaths in one twelve hour shift. One woman (42) died recently just because she was TFTB (too fat to breathe). Talk about psychohazard! If you're not crazy going in to critical care nursing, you are definitely warped after a few years of exposure. Although we have our coping mechanisms (denial, humor, depersonalization), the death, dying, suffering and overwhelming grief are still difficult emotional burdens to carry, to say the least.

I appreciate all of the people doing the research that may give some of our patients a shot at survival.

By Catharine (not verified) on 19 Sep 2009 #permalink

Dr. Freeride,

I came across this post as I was looking for an algorithm for determining the vertical center of gravity in large utility trucks. Go figure. I just want to say thank you for extraordinarily thoughtful offering here.

By Peter Syvertsen (not verified) on 19 Sep 2009 #permalink

I expect to get some flak for my comment:

Before a human gets to the stage of critical care of the type provided by Catharine and numerous others, I wonder how many humans get the care expended on the mice in these studies.

And I also wonder how many human would refuse such care... and for how many different reasons. Which of those reasons might actually be valid and who determines what is valid?

If I were a rat, I think it's possible that being a lab rat might be the best existence possible.

One social worker I knew (MSW and head of a non-profit) always liked to tell about how she spent her summers shooting rats at the city dump. I always felt grateful she hadn't gone into pharmaceutical research.

And then how much of our over industrial lifestyle and preoccupation with growing money instead of real food is the actual cancer in our society that fosters the cancer research you were doing.

I began a project a few months back that requires "live" neurons. The necessary brain extractions have to be completed in under one minute. The tech who taught me the technique suggested that I would need to get a few cages of mice and practice one right after the other until I got it down. The idea of killing mice for practice was a little tough for me, even though I know how important the work is. So the tech also suggested that I follow her own example, and before starting the procedure on each mouse, take a quick moment to say "thank you" and "I'm sorry." It really helps.

I'm a graduate student. I've met scientists who work with mice in a very respectful manner. I've met scientists who do who aren't bothered at all by how the mice suffer (and some truly suffer: think pain, seizure, and depression studies), and some who even laugh about it.

If we have the radiation police and biohazard and chemical standards (and assorted OSHA things), and we've got IRBs set up expressly for human subjects research (to weigh, in part, psychological risks for participants and scientific worthiness), why don't we actually have some psychological safeguards for people in labs?

I know, I know. PIs don't need more paperwork. And personally, while I've spent not a few days miserable from animal work, I've spent a lot more miserable from my PI. And somehow I don't see that kind of psychohazard getting addressed (@ s- Clearly, we should just do depression studies on grad students).

I'm not sure the folks you describe can last long in an animal lab environment. In my distant past I worked in labs with large rat/mice euthanasia and saw just the opposite effect: workers became very DEsensitized to their work, and treated research animals to be euthanized as so much paper towel to be discarded -- if they didn't reach that point (if they maintained any feelings for the animals), they didn't stay on the job for long.

At an animal research conference last year in Japan, the first day included a prolonged, solemn Buddist ceremony honoring the animals that gave their all for research. This ceremony gave increased weight to the important role the animals play in research, while allowing the conference participants to acknowledge and appreciate the emotional toll of using animal models to study disease. I recommend that all institutions employ such a ceremony â it can go a long way to prevent desensitization of lab staff over time, while providing a way for them to deal with their emotions on "tissue harvest day."

By kwadsworth (not verified) on 22 Sep 2009 #permalink

I concur with the idea that the psychological discomfort that people feel when conducting euthanasia should be acknowledged openly and in a permissive and healthy way (rather than clinging to outdated sociocultural ideals that discourage this recognition). It is natural for people to feel strong emotional reactions in these settings and to need to discuss and share those feelings.

But I do want to make an important point about this discussion. To the mouse/rat/fish/monkey, what matters is life (not death) in the laboratory. The real ethical dilemmas, to me, lie in how animals live their lives (from birth to death) while being subjects in a research study. How much of their natural behavioral repertoire can they exhibit in the lab environment? What sort of intervention are they exposed to and how does it affect their welfare? Do they experience pain, and if so, how long? Is it counter-acted with an analgesic? Are these impacts on them minimized and clearly justified?

It seems to me that we should mostly concern ourselves with the lives of animals and how we conduct ourselves with respect to those lives. Do we truly practice our commitment to minimizing pain and distress? Do we use the fewest animals, carry out the least invasive procedures possible and always use the least complex animal (here, I refer to complexity in terms of the emotional, cognitive and social functions of the animal).

And if the benefit to man, animal and science warrants that the protocol compromises the subject, we should be ready to show the same sensitivity referred to above with respect to the discomfort felt by the animal and the experimenter. I believe that we need to discuss these issues more with our students and colleagues because sensitivity and emotional awareness about the impact of scientific investigation on subjects is not a weakness... it's a sign that we take the process in an appropriately serious manner.

By David Jentsch (not verified) on 23 Sep 2009 #permalink