Medical Breakthroughs: What the Animals Can Teach Us

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Have you ever had one of those “holy crap!” moments, where you just learned something and wondered why no one has ever told you this before? I had one of those moments last evening. First, this little joke ...


    What do you call a veterinarian who can only take care of one species? A physician.


    The joke was part of an eye-opening TED Talk - What Veterinarians Know That Human Doctors Don’t - by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardio-imaging physician who works on humans. For the last ten years, she has also collaborated with veterinarians in looking after their non-human patients at the LA Zoo.

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    One of the first things Dr Natterson-Horowitz learned from her ten-year association with veterinarians was that animals of all species suffer from many of the same afflictions we do - heart disease, tumors, diabetes, and so on - and that many of the treatments are exactly the same.


    She also noted that animals experience psychiatric symptoms, including depression, anxiety, compulsions, eating disorders and self-injury.


    Perhaps you can see what Dr Natterson-Horowitz is driving at: If we share such a vast range of conditions with other species, it stands to reason that veterinarians may know a few things physicians don’t. 


    For instance, in 2000, human cardiologists “discovered” emotionally induced heart failure. It turns out that veterinarians had been treating this condition in animals since the 1970s.


    Okay, my “holy crap!” moment:


    Dr Natterson-Horowitz explained that equine veterinarians know that mares occasionally neglect and even harm their foals, not unlike the behavior in human moms with postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis. The equine vets remedy this by increasing the bonding hormone, oxytocin.


    This leads to the mares taking a renewed interest in their little ones.


    Said Dr Natterson-Horowitz:


    Shouldn't this information be put into the hands of ob/gyns and family doctors and patients who are struggling with postpartum depression and psychosis?


    Holy crap! Yes, of course. Oxytocin inhalants are now being used experimentally for postpartum depression. But shouldn’t these experiments have taken place years ago? 


    Think of all those moms struggling with this condition right now.


    Obviously, physicians need to overcome their professional narcissism and learn what their veterinarian colleagues are up to. Ironically, every physician is aware that our knowledge of human conditions and treatments first came from research on animals. In the field of human behavior, it’s easy to rattle off a host of breakthroughs, beginning with Pavolv. Just a few:


    Most of what we know about the human stress response initiated from the study of animals. For instance, Michael Meany of McGill University observed that lab rats raised in poor maternal environments grew up far more stressed.


    Digging deeper into this (which unfortunately involves killing the poor creatures, something you can't do with humans) he has been able to reverse-engineer some of the bio-mechanics.


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    Meanwhile, Robert Sapolsky of Stanford leads a dual career of neuroendocrinologist and primatologist. His observations of baboons in the wild have yielded a trove of fresh insights into the psychological effects of male alpha domineering.


    Dr Sapolsky, incidentally, is a major proponent for the proposition that stress is the major cause of depression.


    We’re not finished ...


    Thomas Insel, head of the NIMH for the past decade, got his breakthrough comparing the mating habits of two similar species of prairie voles, one monogamous, the other promiscuous. The critical difference, it turned out, had to do with oxytocin. 


    Yes, that very same hormone the equine vets were using on their patients.


    Just to show you how far we can take this: In 2000, Eric Kandel of Columbia University received a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his research into neural signaling. This was the result of decades of work into how the brain lays down memories. His test animal? The California sea snail.


    Of course, there are limits ...


    For one, researchers have yet to come up with a convincing animal model of bipolar. Moreover, a rat cannot tell you why it's depressed.


    Proponents of stem cell research and computer modeling argue there are now better ways than animals to mimic human physiology and behavior. These new tools are quickly coming on line.


    Nevertheless, none of this should take away from the fact that we share far more in common with our fellow biospheric residents than we care to acknowledge. In essence, we are not special, but we should treat this as good news. 


    After all, that next killer app in your recovery may come from a source with four legs. Or no legs.

Published On: December 05, 2014