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Increasing the statistical power of animal experiments with historical control data


Low statistical power reduces the reliability of animal research; yet, increasing sample sizes to increase statistical power is problematic for both ethical and practical reasons. We present an alternative solution using Bayesian priors based on historical control data, which capitalizes on the observation that control groups in general are expected to be similar to each other. In a simulation study, we show that including data from control groups of previous studies could halve the minimum sample size required to reach the canonical 80% power or increase power when using the same number of animals. We validated the approach on a dataset based on seven independent rodent studies on the cognitive effects of early-life adversity. We present an open-source tool, RePAIR, that can be widely used to apply this approach and increase statistical power, thereby improving the reliability of animal experiments.

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Fig. 1: Many animal experiments are severely underpowered.
Fig. 2: Historical controls can decrease the number of animals required for sufficiently powered research.
Fig. 3: Sensitivity simulation.

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We thank J. Knop and M. Sep for helpful discussions and R. de Kloet for critically reviewing the manuscript. This work was supported by the Consortium of Individual Development (CID), which is funded by the Gravitation program of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO grant no. 024.001.003).

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Authors and Affiliations




V.B. contributed to conceptualization, data curation, analysis, investigation, methodology, software, visualization and writing the manuscript; H.H. contributed to conceptualization, analysis, methodology, supervision and reviewing and editing the manuscript; members of the RELACS consortium provided the data; R.A.S. contributed to conceptualization, project administration, supervision and editing and reviewing the manuscript; M.J. contributed to conceptualization, funding acquisition, project administration, supervision and writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to V. Bonapersona.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Neuroscience thanks Stanley Lazic, Malcolm MacLeod, and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Notes 1–4, Supplementary Fig. 1 and Supplementary Tables 1–4

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Bonapersona, V., Hoijtink, H., RELACS Consortium. et al. Increasing the statistical power of animal experiments with historical control data. Nat Neurosci 24, 470–477 (2021).

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