From WAMU 88.5 and American University in Washington, it's "The Animal House," connecting you with everything that concerns the animal world. I'm Sam Litzinger. Later, we meet the authors of a new book that says animals can teach us much about human health and the science of healing. And Dr. Gary Weitzman is at the center of a familiar motif with answers to questions about your pet.
First, Swiss researchers may be on the cusp of a major breakthrough in medical science thanks to significant contributions from a group of rats. Here with the details, Benedict Carey, The New York Times science writer who was the first to report this story. Glad to have you with us in "The Animal House."
Thanks very much. Good to be here.
So can you walk us through the mechanics of this thing? It sounds potentially a little complicated, but what's going on here?
Well, you know, the idea is to see whether we can repair spinal injuries. And this group in Switzerland applied a couple techniques to try to see whether they could revive the injured area.
So, I mean, how does it work? I'm seeing some pictures here. It looks like the rats are kind of in little harnesses dangling over stairs and treadmills and things.
That's right. They have this injury and the injury allows them to use their front legs, but not their hind legs. And so in order to test out the therapy, they're held up so that they have to move with their hind legs. Now, of course they can't do that initially because of the injury. So what the scientists do is to apply electrical stimulation above the injury to the spinal cord and to an area of the brain that sort of controls activity through the cord.
They also apply stimulation below the injury to the cord. So you're getting this artificial electrical impulses kind of going along the spinal cord. And then in the injured area, they inject drugs that make the nerve fibers that are still intact more sensitive to all the sort of chemical things that happen when our nerves are in use. And so as they're doing this, they're also essentially exercising the rats.
The rats are motivated to walk because they -- or to crawl, whatever, to move on their hind legs because there's a reward. They're moving towards a piece of cheese. And so this combination which is essentially like physical therapy, over time, weeks of training, restores movement in these animals.
Do we know what's actually happening with the neural system? You write, "Neurons sprout like seedlings on a Chia Pet when they are seeking new connections." Is that what's taking place here?
I just wanted to get the word Chia Pet into the paper, but…
Who wouldn't? (laugh) Mission accomplished on that.
Right. Yeah, no, that's sort of what happens. I mean these neurons, they sort of reshape themselves according to the demands of the organism, of the animal in this case. So the animal really wants to move forward. You know, it has intact nerve fibers running through the area of the injury. And the combination of this, sort of demands of the legs and the sort of juice that you're getting from the stimulation, sort of starts to reshape these connections running through.
And so those fibers which initially were not connected to the legs directly begin to form connections to, you know, to the leg fibers and so on. And so you really get kind of a reshaping of this kind of neural architecture running from the brain down to the legs. Just from this combination of essentially exercise or demands of exercise and the stimulation.
I have to ask because I'm sure some of our listeners will wanna know, how did the rats become paralyzed in the first place?
They do give them the injuries. They also restore movement afterwards.
Do we know yet what the implications are for human patients?
Well, you're going exactly the same places they are with the rats or trying to. And really they're just working on the, what exactly do we have to do to make this happen in humans. And they'll be getting people who are in wheelchairs essentially and that have injuries that are similar to the ones that they looked at to see if they can revive movement in those people.
It's a fascinating story. Benedict Carey, science reporter for The New York Times. More to come on it. Thank you very much for being with us in "The Animal House."
Hey, you're welcome.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of a remarkable discovery in the mountains of Vietnam. Scientists from the World Wildlife Fund identified a rare and mysterious animal which turned out to be a new species and the first large mammal discovery to science in more than 50 years. What little information that is known about this creature is in the head of our next guest, Dr. Barney Long, Asian species expert for the World Wildlife Fund. Glad to you have you with us in "The Animal House."
It's great to be here. Thank you.
What's the animal?
It's the Saola.
It's an antelope-looking species. It's about three foot tall, dark chocolate brown with vivid white markings on the face and a big, white crescent on its backside. And it has two very long, thin, straight horns on its head. What we do know about it is primarily from local ethnic communities that live along the Annamite Mountains, which is the area that it lives on the Laos-Vietnam border.
Do we know where it prefers to live?
The Saola lives in very small pockets along this mountain chain. And it's where the various monsoons are able to reach. So it's areas that are very, very wet throughout the year. If there's areas where only one monsoon hits, it's not wet enough. It needs 12 months of wet, basically. So they're very, very wet, humid, dense forests. And that's where it lives.
No scientist has actually seen it in the wild. It's extremely rare and lives in extremely remote areas of these mountains. And so it's very hard to get into these areas and spend long periods of time there. I've spent months and months in these forests over the years, but not been able to see one. But a few have been caught and put into captivity so scientists have been able to study them for a few weeks at a time.
Unfortunately, they don't seem to do very well in captivity and none have survived very long at all. So really our only chance of saving them is in the wild. And therefore we need to stop this rampant poaching and snaring and the wildlife trade.
How do you deal with the poaching?
Actually lots of the local communities across the Annamites are very in touch with the forest and understand that the poaching is very much out of control. It's how do you stop these professional hunters, which are usually lone people from urban centers who have made this their livelihood. And it's an illegal livelihood. The demand for urban centers, Vietnam especially, who think of wildlife meats as a specialty, as a status symbol -- with Vietnam and southern China being economically booming, despite what's happening in the rest of the world, there's a lot larger middle class than there was 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago.
So there's a lot higher demand for the status symbol products than there was back then. So really it's a matter of long-term reducing demand through awareness campaigns and behavior change work. And in the shorter term addressing the anti-poaching and the anti-trafficking work and addressing these restaurants.
Our guest has been Dr. Barney Long, Asian species expert for the World Wildlife Fund. Thank you very much for being with us in "The Animal House."
Thank you. It's my pleasure.
For "The Animal House," this is Birdnote.
Nothing will bring wondrous songbirds to your yard faster than a ready supply of water.
The summer season is generally the driest of the year. Creeks run low or underground, rain is scarce and temporary puddles gone. Summer is a crucial time to keep your backyard birds supplied with water for drinking and bathing.
Birdbaths set at different heights serve a great variety of birds. Some shy birds come readily to a birdbath set flat on the ground, but will rarely visit a pedestal birdbath.
Water depth is very important, too. Many birds prefer shallow water over deep. And inch of water or even less is ideal for small birds. A wide shallow birdbath that deepens a bit in the center will suit a broad range of birds. A fine dripper or a mister on the birdbath is also a superb idea. Not only will it keep the vessel full with little effort, but small birds like hummingbirds often prefer a refreshing shower.
Learn more at Birdnote.org.
In a few moments, Dr. Gary Weitzman will join us with answers to questions about your pets. First, let's learn about our animal of the day, the Australian Cattle Dog, which usually plays a certain role in the hierarchy of domestic canines. Do you know what that role is? We'll have the answer just before the end of today's program.
Next week in "The Animal House," how secrets from nature can help us in the fight against terrorism.
The best example of that is the octopus itself. It's an incredibly smart animal, but if it's gonna swim over a coral reef and camouflage itself it has millions of individual skin cells, each acting on their own, and then collectively that gives the octopus its camouflage. So wherever we can, we want to emulate that process.
Scientist Rafe Sagarin shares valuable lessons he's learned from the octopus, next week in "The Animal House."
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