Many scientists devoted to studying a particular disease or condition
attribute their zeal to a life-changing moment. For physiologist
Richard Nichols, that moment occurred during the Vietnam War, when
he visited a VA hospital near Boston.
In the spinal cord unit there, Nichols recalled, was
a patient who was paralyzed from the neck down from an injury hed
received during the first World War. He was treated well, but hed
been in bed for all these years.
In the next bed was a young man in his early 20s who had
also sustained a spinal cord injury. He had just come back from
Vietnam. His doctor said, The young guy is going to be just
like the old guy in 30 years. We can make them comfortable, but
I decided that was unacceptable, Nichols said.
As a basic scientist, Nichols studies the manner in which the spinal
cord regulates posture and balance. While the brain controls many
motor functions, the spinal cord itself has some intrinsic motor
capacities. Patterns of locomotion, for instance, are generated
partly by spinal cord circuits that receive sensory information
from the muscles. Associated circuits help keep the body upright
and balanced using the same sensory information. The circuits can
be disrupted by diseases like cerebral palsy or injuries to the
spinal cord or its peripheral nerves.
However, in some spinal cord injuries, such as a broken neck, the
circuits located at lower levels remain largely intact. Because
the circuits can deteriorate through long disuse, the limbs of paralyzed
individuals hoping to regain mobility must be exercised regularly
to maintain the feedback loop. But these circuits also may hold
the key to restoring balance and upright posture in addition to
When you think about it, its not sufficient to make
your muscles go in a cyclic fashion, Nichols said. You
have to be able to stand up out of a chair and keep your balance
as you go along. That is an enormous feat.
To learn more about how those circuits work, Nichols studies cats.
That research has made him a primary target of animal rights activists,
who say he conducts torturous studies that have not produced any
However, Nichols has accumulated substantial evidence that the
spinal cord and the musculoskeletal system are responsible for maintaining
postureevidence that will provide the basis for designing
rehabilitation strategies for patients with spinal cord injury.
What Nichols does is this: He operates on a cat, severing a nerve
going to a single muscle, then immediately reattaches it in the
same operation. As the cat heals, the muscle regains its full strength,
but the sensory information the muscles send to the spinal cord
is permanently disrupted, resulting in some loss of dexterity. The
barely noticeable impairment can be measured using state-of-the-art
methods when the cat performs certain exercises, such as walking
up and down ramps and jumping onto platforms.
Sometimes, Nichols needs to make more specific, invasive physiological
measurements. To do this, he deeply anesthetizes the cat, then exposes
the muscles he needs to examine. At the end of the procedure, the
animal is euthanized with an overdose of anesthesia. The cat feels
nothing during the entire process.
I dont like killing animals, Nichols said. I
dislike it very much.
But he uses cats because a great deal of information about feline
spinal cord and motor coordination functions compiled by scientists
over the past century enables researchers today to make major findings
using relatively few animals. In addition, cats will be the first
to benefit from any breakthroughs derived from this research.
Using cats also allows Nichols to control confounding factors that
might muddy his results; this would be impossible in a study of
human subjects with varying types and degrees of spinal injury.
Were still at the stage where we must depend primarily
on animal experimentation, Nichols said, emphasizing that
the cats living in his colony are thriving and healthy, with only
Certainly this seems the case during a recent visit to the facility
where the colony is housed. As veterinarian Mike Huerkamp eased
open the door to the large room where several of Nichols cats
roam freely, the cats froze in the classic attitude any cat owner
would recognize. Two cats were on the counter, pretending to ignore
the faucet gushing water into the sink.
Who turned this on? Huerkamp scolded as the pair casually
jumped to the floor to indicate their total innocence. All the cats
jockeyed for position around his legs, gracefully swishing back
and forth in figure eights. The pushier ones stood on their hind
legs and pawed at him.
I find it ironic that Richard, of all people, has been targeted
by the animal-rights activists because hes such a caring person,
Huerkamp said, explaining that Nichols worked to ensure social housing
for his cats.
To Nichols, the most disturbing aspect of the attacks is that they
have entered his personal life. In 2000, an animal rights group
ran ads in The Emory Wheel and Creative Loafing attacking his research.
On two subsequent occasions, the group distributed leaflets in Nichols
neighborhood near Emory.
In addition, last year Nichols received a threatening e-mail from
an animal-rights activist who has been arrested at demonstrations
around the country, including a violent 1997 protest at Yerkes.
The e-mail mentioned Nichols wife, whose name also has been
listed on a local animal-rights website.
They came into my neighborhood, invaded my privacy and involved
my family, Nichols said. He promptly launched his own door-to-door
campaign to educate his neighbors about his work and correct any
misconceptions. With painstaking earnestness, he has explained how
he conducts his work, what he already has accomplished and what
he hopes to learn.
Even people in my neighborhood who are extreme animal lovers
and feel uncomfortable with animal researchafter hearing about
my research, they endorse what I do, Nichols said.
And he offers this as evidence that the public as a whole will
endorse animal research, once people learn how and why researchers
do what they do.
article first appeared in Momentum and is reprinted with