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Research Training Scholarships

Current project

Elena Armstrong

“Developing lifetime animal welfare assessment tools using novel physiological measures of cumulative chronic stress”

The most recent studentship was awarded to Elena Armstrong at Newcastle University. Elena hopes to develop a novel approach to “welfare markers” used to assess the wellbeing of food animals. The welfare of food animals is a high-profile public concern and as the numbers of animals reared for food increases, driven by the growth in the world’s population, there is an increased need to ensure the health and welfare of these animals. This particularly applies to poultry as the fastest-growing sector of meat production and consumption worldwide.

Under the supervision of a team of researchers led by Dr Tom Smulders and comprising Drs Tim Boswell and Jonathan Guy (also of Newcastle University) and Vicky Sandilands (Scotland's Rural College) Elena is investigating the lifetime welfare of chickens by testing whether changes in the birds’ brains reflect their levels of stress.

The aim of the project is to deliver a useful measure of the welfare of chickens in different production systems, both to confirm that products being sold as “high welfare” originate from animals with an actual higher welfare status, and to assess the welfare implications of any new husbandry methods. The neuroscientific approach has been inspired by extensive literature on human mood disorders which suggest that chronic stress causes anatomical and physiological changes in the brain.

Changes in the hippocampus, an area of the brain important for learning and memory, appear to be related to stress over the lifetime of animals. The team aim to characterise changes which occur in the hippocampus of stressed animals, including generation of new neurons as well as molecular markers of inflammation, which are thought to be related to stress and potentially to mood disorders. These changes will then be quantified in commercial laying hens and broiler (meat) chickens housed under different conditions, offering the potential to test whether higher welfare housing, which provides more space or environmental enrichment, reduces stress markers over the lifetime of the birds. These parts of the study will be carried out with the collaboration of commercial producers - allowing the researchers to test their theory in the ‘real world’ and to identify which housing systems offer the highest welfare.