Anaesthesia and physiological monitoring during in vivo imaging of laboratory rodents: considerations on experimental outcomes and animal welfare

The implementation of imaging technologies has dramatically increased the efficiency of preclinical studies, enabling a powerful, non-invasive and clinically translatable way for monitoring disease progression in real time and testing new therapies. The ability to image live animals is one of the most important advantages of these technologies. However, this also represents an important challenge as, in contrast to human studies, imaging of animals generally requires anaesthesia to restrain the animals and their gross motion. Anaesthetic agents have a profound effect on the physiology of the animal and may thereby confound the image data acquired. It is therefore necessary to select the appropriate anaesthetic regime and to implement suitable systems for monitoring anaesthetised animals during image acquisition. In addition, repeated anaesthesia required for longitudinal studies, the exposure of ionising radiations and the use of contrast agents and/or imaging biomarkers may also have consequences on the physiology of the animal and its response to anaesthesia, which need to be considered while monitoring the animals during imaging studies. We will review the anaesthesia protocols and monitoring systems commonly used during imaging of laboratory rodents. A variety of imaging modalities are used for imaging rodents, including magnetic resonance imaging, computed tomography, positron emission tomography, single photon emission computed tomography, high frequency ultrasound and optical imaging techniques such as bioluminescence and fluorescence imaging. While all these modalities are implemented for non-invasive in vivo imaging, there are certain differences in terms of animal handling and preparation, how the monitoring systems are implemented and, importantly, how the imaging procedures themselves can affect mammalian physiology. The most important and critical adverse effects of anaesthetic agents are depression of respiration, cardiovascular system disruption and thermoregulation. When anaesthetising rodents, one must carefully consider if these adverse effects occur at the therapeutic dose required for anaesthesia, if they are likely to affect the image acquisitions and, importantly, if they compromise the well-being of the animals. We will review how these challenges can be successfully addressed through an appropriate understanding of anaesthetic protocols and the implementation of adequate physiological monitoring systems.