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Monday, 18 November 2013

Can the Dog’s Tail Wag in a New Era for Animal Welfare

So are we to take it that this is not a happy dog, since he wags here to the left?

(This blog was put on the University of Liverpool Viewpoint Website and is reproduced here just for my own personal diary)
The media and social media have been alive today with the latest revelations of complexity in canine caudal oscillations: “Tail wags”.  The bottom line of Prof Angelo Quaranta’s latest research is simply that dogs can read other dogs’ tail wags for emotional features such as happiness and nervousness.  The claim that dogs wag their tails more to the right than left when they are happy was reported years ago by the same group.  To pick holes in the research would be too easy; for example the authors imply that stress results in elevated heart rates (which it does), but that that “happiness” does not.  That is pretty unlikely, we did a number of student projects years ago measuring heart rates from horses and dogs and found, unsurprisingly that stimuli you would think would excite them increase heart rate considerably.  A race horse for example pumps up its heart rate to near full race speed just at the thought of the race, well before it actually starts racing.  So do I dispute the findings? No not at all, but I think the real interest is far deeper.  It relates to whether non-humans experience emotions at all; that is the central issue and it is a regular battle ground for those debating animal welfare.

The common scientific opinion for centuries has been that only humans experience emotions.  Occam's razor (the simplest hypothesis should be assumed true) has been taken to mean that unless you can prove an animal experiences emotion, it should be assumed they do not.  ...and of course, it is pretty much impossible to prove what emotions another human is really feeling let alone another species.  Professor Quaranta’s two famous doggie happiness papers actually never dare use the words “happy” or “happiness” at all; I presume this is because they would receive too much scientific pillory.  To most non-scientists it seems obvious that animals experience emotion.  Elk run away when faced with a wolf pack, dogs bark and squeak when their dinner is being prepared.  However, the scientific view since Descartes, probably well before, is that these are all simply emotion-free responses conditioned to promote animal survival.  Take “Pavlov’s dog” experiment for example.  The scientific theory is that the dog does not “think” about food when he hears the bell and thus salivate. The theory is that an automatic (thought-free) response is created so that salivation directly results from bell ringing without any thought.  So the concept of happiness, pain, love and hate are all widely excluded from scientific consciousness.  One of the irksome things that Darwin did, apart from implying man was little more than a naked ape, was to suggest that emotions had also evolved.  Even the title of his book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” was and still is divergent with the broad swath of scientific thinking.

To me it has always seemed scientifically irrational to believe that animals’ emotions would be all that different to humans.  There is a part of the brain traditionally associated with the expression of emotions (the “limbic system” ...sort of in the “lower-middle” of the brain) which is extremely well conserved between species.  The most substantial differences are in the outer parts of the brain where, generally, the thinking is done.  In terms of animal welfare, shouldn't Occam's razor read “non-animals should be considered to have the same emotions to humans unless proven otherwise”?  I don’t argue that we should not use animals for food or medical research, only that people should cease the mantra that emotions are unique to the human animal.  So the study of dog tail wags and its implicit connection to a state of happiness is progress, bringing an acceptance of animal emotion to a wide audience.  The trouble is, you know what traditionalists will say about dog tail wags now? does not betray subconscious feelings of happiness, but is simply an emotion-free response evolved to convey danger to the rest of the pack and promote survival. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

King Richard III's spine and the "ion channels", "TRPV4".

Richard III skeleton
Funky ion channels in King Richard III's skeleton
I am sure that most sensible scientists, medics and vets would appreciate that ion channels are *the* most important proteins in the body? …OK all proteins are important, but none are as exciting as ion channels, which sit in the membrane of every cell and can control their functions.  …but I think it is about time to bring the word “ion channel” to the attention of archaeologists and historians through the medium of… Richard III’s skeleton.
The official line from University of Leicester (if there can be an official line) is that Ricky 3 had an idiopathic adolescent onset scoliosis.  Now the “scoliosis” bit just means “bent spine”, the “adolescent onset” bit is obvious and “idiopathic” is a posh way of saying “unknown cause”.
Therefore he had a bent spine since adolescence of unknown cause.  He also apparently had osteoarthritis.  It seems likely that a funky ion channel was at fault.  I have in mind, a particular ion channels with a gene name “TRPV4”.  In lay terms, it allows calcium to enter cells in response to movement.  Now what evidence do I have… .  eeerm…. none! That’s the great thing about blogs BUT just check-out the similarity of spine curvature with the bones of King Richard III and this well-studied literature example of a TRPV4 “channelopathy” below.

Parastremmatic dysplasia patient, with an ion channel disease

Not proof, I agree… but perhaps the many fans of Richard III should now start wearing tee-shirts with a TRPV4 channel on them… I present this suggestion below.  Have fun!!! 

Friday, 27 September 2013

Cartilage gets squished when you stand

Reprinted from Coleman et al 2012, yes with permission. It cost me $20 just to use it!
You can see the cartilage of a healthy human joint outlined in yellow (from an MRI).

I recently came across a great little paper on knee joint thickness by Coleman et al. It confirms what we may have already known or guessed.... but it does it beautifully and in a highly quantified manner. The data is from humans, but I would expect that similar would be seen with doggies! Very sophisticated experimental techniques, and modelling with some lovely beautiful pictures (!) and well controlled data.
Read the paper here Coleman et al 2012
The paper shows that there is a physical squeezing and compressing of cartilage when you stand up.  This has all kinds of ramifications to scientists who work in the area (like us!!).
The difference in thickness is quite small between day and night, but certainly significant in the knees.
Snippets of the data are that men's cartilage is much much thicker than womens'... and of course, there is a significant correlation between cartilage strain and body mass index (BMI).
...So if you want nice thick knee cartilage; be a chap, spend the day in bed*... but don't eat too much!!!

*...but seriously: it is generally accepted that moderate exercise is good for healthy joints, but excessive weight is an absolute no no......

Other blogs pertaining to osteoarthritis and exercise:
What Gives People and Animals Arthritis
Is Running Good for Your Health
Exercise and osteoarthritis

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Excuse me, but the flu is a virus

Viruses, under creative Commons licence by

This is a VERY short blog:  I am just amazed how many people seem to not know that a cold and the flu are all viral conditions!  EVEN SCIENTISTS! So just to clarify.  There are at least (hedging my bets) three types of infection you can get: (1) Bacterial, (2) viral and (3) parasitic.   
A "cold" is a virus.
The "flu" is a virus.
"A virus" is a virus (people often say, "I don't have a cold/the flu I have a virus"!!).

Typically, but not exclusively food poisoning will be bacterial.  (And parasites  include tapeworms and fleas.)

The distinction between a virus and bacteria is pretty crucial: Antibiotics are anti-bacterial, but have no effect on viruses. Sometimes, a bad cold, with all the sneezing and wheezing and lying around indoors can leave with you with a secondary bacterial infection, but wasn't the primary cause!   In terms of how viruses and bacteria are different... well just log on to Wikipedia!

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Bad Pharma and Negative Data

Negative clinical data.
This is a topic getting a lot of airplay and a lot of words! Here are a lot more (sorry). There is a huge issue with clinical trials failing to report the failure of a drug. There are also a number of quack remedies which have been tested frequently and usually deliver negative results that are never published. If ever, by the effect of pure chance, they do appear provide some marginal benefit, this is shouted from the rooftops. So how how are your sports team doing? There are two ways you could assess that, you could say they are 100% winners. To get this value you simply report the results where they won. However, a fairer assessment would be to report all the results and then you would see that if it were baseball, most likely, they loose half the time and win half the time. More-or-less. The withholding of negative clinical trials data is thus wicked, but I think outside of the people who do it, it is already universally condemned! This was discussed at great length by Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Pharma. It is indeed an excellent book and very important. Although I feel I can make four criticisms since I am pretty certain he would never follow me on Twitter!!! ...
"Reps may do bad things I suppose, unlike me. I do good things, but I just do them badly!"
(1) Bad Pharma was painfully long and I was quite frankly on my knees by the time I approached the end. (2) Ben is really horrid about drug reps. Ben seems to think they are evil, but I have known people go into drug repping and from my experience they were just ordinary people searching for a job. They may not love their job like the rest of us do, but they have to do it because it is their livelihood! I would blame the system that allows Vets and Medics to be ill equipped to handle the high pressure sales and gobbledygook "science talk". I feel sorry for drug reps trying to sell their wares to hospitals/GPs/Vets. (3) There were not many laughs in there, given how long the book is! (4) I don't think he quite gets the situation with negative preclinical data. So here's my bit on that.
"The Bad Pharma book by Ben Goldacre highlighted problems with negative data, but it treated clinical sciences and basic research just the same."

Negative Preclinical Data
It is not the same. I know the Journal Editors (I also Edit!), will all say negative data is perfectly acceptable, but the reality is; it is just not as hot.

"List all the Nobel Prize Winners you can think of that got the Prize by showing that their own theory was untrue"

Firstly, even I accept that negative data is less exciting; we knock about ideas in my lab... we wonder if this works like that. We do an experiment and we find.... it doesn't. No one can really pretend that is going to be a widely exciting read for others. RBJ had this great idea: His group spent months testing it and turn out to be wrong. Sure if there is some huge piece of dogma you can debunk you could probably publish this IF you also included an alternative positive set of data. Not true? OK lets have a competition, you list all the Nobel Prize winners who got their Nobel Prizes for the failure to discover something? OK I'll even allow you to throw in the discovery that something they thought might work.. doesn't work. Meanwhile, I will start to list Prize winners who were elected on the basis of positive data. Its all nonsense. A hypothesis constructed, tested and verified (positive data) is nearly always going to be easier to publish in a mainstream journal than "we tried this... it didn't work".
Am I complaining? Not about the fact that negative scientific data is tricky to publish, it has always been like that. My gripe is that (a) Ben and others seem to think this is in someway scientific corruption. (b) Editors need to have the courage to say, generally positive PRE-clinical data is more interesting and publishable than negative. I can have 10 new theories before breakfast, when tested, most of them will prove untrue I am sure, we can't fill the literature with disproving of all our own theories!
"None of us want to spend our days reading about how Jo Blogs tested his own private theory and found it to be untrue!"
The last point, wouldn't it be useful to have access to negative data to stop scientists around the world keep trying the same things and getting the same negative results? Oh yes indeed. Little journals or peer-review repositories which specialise in negative data are the way to go. They exist already, so lets just use them (if you are a scientist) and stop confusing the shocking hiding of negative clinical data, with the quite legitimate low profile publishing of negative data and broken hypotheses.

There feel better now.