Mike the Headless Chicken – Who was he, and how did he contribute to modern neuroscience?

Throughout history, animals have been used as the basis of many scientific experiments and breakthroughs – Dolly the Sheep, Laika the dog, and several rats and fruit flies. But all their purposes and uses were completely intentional.
There is, however, one animal who unknowingly made a massive contribution to modern neuroscience – a real headless chicken.

On the 10th September 1945 in Colorado, farmer Lloyd Olsen was slaughtering a selection of chickens from his farm to take to the market, when he sliced the head of one of his animals to have for dinner. However, his plans were foiled when the chicken remained aliveā€¦ and headless. This highly unusual event garnered intense amounts of fame, and can be viewed as a major influence upon neuroscience.

Although it is an exceptionally unusual event, what is the science behind it? The majority of a chicken’s brain is located behind the eyes, and in the back of its head. When Olsen attempted to slaughter the animal, he did not completely separate the head from the rest of the body, instead leaving the part of the brain that controls some bodily processes such as breathing and digestive function within the body. Olsen also left the jugular vein of the chicken intact, preventing blood clots that could have led to imminent death. This event gained a lot of attention, earning the decapitated chicken the title ‘Mike the headless chicken’ – the animal lived for 18 months, and was taken to fairs to entertain the masses, while simultaneously being studied by scientists who wanted to make more sense of the situation.

Scientists understood infinitely more about the brain and its capabilities once having studied Mike’s situation. Before this incident occurred, the field of neuroscience was relatively uncharted territory, but upon studying the event, scientists realised that the reason the chicken was still able to walk and retain basic motor function. We now know that this is due to the fact that the chicken’s brain stem was rendered relatively intact after the accident, meaning that it was only unable to eat, drink and clear mucus on its own – this had to be performed by Lloyd Olsen using a syringe. The scientists also gained more knowledge about the reflex arc and spinal cord, by analysing Mike’s brain activity when he walked. When Mike was walking, his brain activity was actually registered at a lower level than when performing other activities such as walking – this was because walking is known as a ‘reflex’ or involuntary action – the electrical impulses that pass through the neurons do not reach the brain, instead reaching the spinal cord which allows for the involuntary movement to be carried out. This occurs simply as a matter of efficiency – the spinal cord is easier to reach than the brain, speeding up the rate of the reflex arc. Upon further study, the scientists learned more about the presence of CPGs (central pattern generators) within the spinal cord which helped to produce the rhythmic movement patterns of walking, which help humans in performing involuntary actions too.

However, while it is abundantly clear that animals such as Mike the Headless Chicken have made a tremendous contribution on the development of science, and while his study may have been completely ethical, it is important to remember that several animals have been treated unethically for the purpose of scientific progression – while it is important to make scientific discoveries, it is also important to do so respectfully, such as with Mike the Chicken, who died after 18 months at no fault of the scientists who studied him to make modern neuroscience what it is today.

Twisha Sai Ravuri

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