Sunday, June 10, 2012

We ARE Animals

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers have written a fascinating opinion piece about similarities between animal and human disease for theNew York Times:
Do animals get breast cancer? Stress-induced heart attacks? Brain tumors? How about shingles and gout? Fainting spells? Night after night, condition after condition, the answer kept coming back “yes.” My research yielded a series of fascinating commonalities.

Melanoma has been diagnosed in the bodies of animals from penguins to buffalo. Koalas in Australia are in the middle of a rampant epidemic of chlamydia. Yes, that kind — sexually transmitted. I wondered about obesity and diabetes — two of the most pressing health concerns of our time. Do wild animals get medically obese? Do they overeat or binge eat? I learned that yes, they do.
We all grieve and we like to get high:
Perhaps a human patient compulsively burning himself with cigarettes could improve if his therapist consulted a bird specialist experienced in the treatment of parrots with feather-picking disorder. Significantly for substance abusers and addicts, species from birds to elephants are known to seek out psychotropic berries and plants that change their sensory states — that is, get them high.
There was a time when practitioners treated all species:
A century or two ago, in some rural communities, animals and humans were cared for by the same practitioner. And physicians and veterinarians both claim the same 19th-century doctor, William Osler, as a father of their fields. However, animal and human medicine began a decisive split in the late 1800s. Increasing urbanization meant that fewer people relied on animals to make a living. Motorized vehicles began pushing work animals out of daily life.
And then there's the taboo on anthropomorphising:
My medical education included stern warnings against the tantalizing pull to anthropomorphize. In those days, noticing pain or sadness on the face of an animal was criticized as projection, fantasy, or sloppy sentimentality. But scientific advancements of the past two decades suggest that we should adopt an updated perspective. Seeing too much of ourselves in other animals might not be the problem we think it is. Underappreciating our own animal natures may be the greater limitation.
The article crawls with specific examples. Here's a bit on weight:
New research suggests that when, and how much, light beams through your eyes may play a quiet and unrecognized role in determining your dress or pants size. And the breaking up of light-dark cycles may be a culprit. Light pollution from suburban sprawl, big-city skyglow, electronic billboards and stadium lights has brightened our planet. A rodent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that mice housed with constant light — whether bright or dim — had higher body mass indexes (B.M.I.’s) and blood sugar levels than mice housed with standard cycles of dark and light.

Another invisible weight driver is housed within our own abdomens: the trillions of microscopic organisms that live in our guts. This world is called the microbiome, and it is colonized by two dominant groups of bacteria: the Firmicutes and the Bacteroidetes. In the mid-2000s, some scientists made an interesting observation. They found that obese humans had a higher proportion of Firmicutes in their intestines. Lean humans had more Bacteroidetes. As the obese humans lost weight over the course of a year, their microbiomes started looking more like those of lean individuals — with Bacteroidetes outnumbering Firmicutes.
There's more in the article, including some fascinating speculation on cutting (self-injury) and grooming in humans and animals.

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