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The forced swim test is a widely used experiment that's as cruel as it is worthless. In this test, experimenters put mice, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, or gerbils in inescapable containers filled with water. The panicked animals try to escape by attempting to climb up the sides of the beakers or even diving underwater in search of an exit. They paddle furiously, desperately trying to keep their heads above water. Eventually, they'll start to float.
Some form of this test has been carried out since at least the 1950s, when notorious Johns Hopkins University experimenter Curt Richter forced rats to swim in cylinders of water until they drowned. It was popularised in 1977 by an experimenter named Roger Porsolt, who called it the "behavioral despair test". Porsolt found that rats who'd been given human antidepressant drugs would struggle and swim for longer than other rats before starting to float, and he concluded that those who swam for less time were in a state of "despair". But the test has been heavily criticised by other scientists who argue that floating is not a sign of despair but rather a positive sign of learning, conserving energy, and adapting to a new environment.
More than 40 years later, in university and pharmaceutical laboratories, animals are being dosed with drugs and then dropped into cylinders of water so that experimenters can measure how long they struggle.
Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly has subjected at least 3,201 mice and 234 rats to the cruel forced swim test – as documented in 19 published papers and 11 patent applications between 1993 and 2018. PETA US scientists identified 47 compounds that had been tested by four major pharmaceuticals companies and found that even though 36 of them showed promise as having antidepressant characteristics using the archaic forced swim test, none of these compounds is currently approved to treat human depression.
The forced swim test doesn't accurately predict whether a drug will work as a human antidepressant. It yields positive results for compounds that aren't prescribed as human antidepressants, such as caffeine, and negative results for compounds that are. Importantly, antidepressant compounds that might work in humans may be mistakenly abandoned based on the test.
The bottom line: the forced swim test is bad science. These experiments do nothing more than terrify animals and delay development of new effective treatments that are so desperately needed.
After discussions with PETA US, some of the world's leading pharmaceutical giants – including Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Bayer, Roche, and AbbVie – announced that they would no longer conduct or fund this cruel test. And recently, Bristol-Myers Squibb joined them.
But pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly is still refusing to enact a ban. Tell the company what you think about that by taking action below.