Animal Empathy Sheds Light on Autism

A new study of prairie voles shows that they can not only tell when a member of their family has been hurt, they also show empathy.

Prairie voles mate for life and live in family groups (although they may have sex outside of the pair bond).

Larry Young (one of the original researchers who discovered oxytocin's role in animal bonding) and James Burkett of Emory University gave shocks to some voles in the family and then returned them. The other voles tried to soothe the ones that had been shocked by licking them.

I think it's pretty cool that this study showed that animals share some of humans' "higher emotions."

And, of course, research has identified the oxytocin system as a possible cause of or influence on autism for several years. Maybe this is a way scientists could study autism? The article quotes Larry Young:

"Many complex human traits have their roots in fundamental brain processes that are shared among many other species," Young said, according to the publication. "We now have the opportunity to explore in detail the neural mechanisms underlying empathetic responses in a laboratory rodent with clear implications for humans."

What a study about empathy in animals may be able to tell us about autism in humans


Your Cat Loves You but Your Dog Loves You More

via GIPHY

This morning, while I was lying in bed, our cat sat on my chest, purred and licked my face. It's a cute little quirk that I love about him. I know our cat loves me in his unique kitty way.

I've written before about the studies showing that dogs show higher oxytocin levels after they cuddle with their people. And, because people and dogs have the same oxytocin response, you can say that they both feel love. Now, research sponsored by the BBC shows that cats also have an oxytocin response when they're with their people -- it's just not as strong.

Oxytocin levels went up 12 percent in cats after they played with their owners. Oxytocin levels in dogs went up 57.2 percent. So, you could say that your dog loves you five times more than your cat. Hey, we know dogs are easy.

There is something I would add, based on my personal experience. Oxytocin levels go up during positive social interactions. It's a function of being comforted/comfortable. I would bet that cats' attachment to their owners is not as strong as dogs'. That is, the oxytocin response is more tightly connected to social memory in dogs than in cats. Just my personal theory.

Read the article in Bustle: http://www.bustle.com/articles/138786-dogs-love-their-owners-more-than-cats-do-but-that-probably-doesnt-surprise-you


Marijuana's happy effects could be due to oxytocin

Admission: I was a hippie (well, a semi-hippie). In the early 1970s I lived in my van, hitchhiked around and asked people on the street, "Do you have a place we can crash?"

I still clearly remember a time I was hitchhiking with a boyfriend. A guy picked us up and we smoked a joint. As we were riding along, this guy said, "Isn't this cool? We're sitting here together like we've been friends for years."

It was true. There was no feeling of nervousness, anxiety or constraint with this stranger.

I've often thought that marijuana, at its best, activated the oxytocin system. Here's research showing  that that is the case. A study by Daniele Piomelli, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, found that -- in mice -- " it is social interaction between mice plus oxytocin—the hormone involved in social bonding—that drive cannabinoid activity in the animals’ brains."

According to the article,

The finding may also point to a possible treatment for autism spectrum disorders, which can involve social-interaction difficulties. (The team initially homed in on the interaction of oxytocin and anandamide (an endocannabinoid) while studying autism mouse model of autism.)

I'm not sure this would necessarily work for people on the spectrum, nor for those who experience social anxiety. Although my experience in that car was very positive, marijuana more often than not makes me feel paranoid and more anxious around other people. There might be something different in my brain that inhibits the pleasant social effect.

Read the article in The Scientist here.


Prozac During Pregnancy Could Lead to Autism (Vole Study)

Here is a very alarming study from Rebecca Larke, a researcher in Karen Bales' lab at UC Davis: Female prairie voles that were given fluoxetine (generic Prozac) during pregnancy gave birth to babies that had significant abnormalities in their oxytocin and reward systems -- and this led to anxious behavior later in life.

According to Spectrum News, the offspring of the mothers that had been given the antidepressant preferred to spend time alone and were less likely to want to interact with unfamiliar voles, as well as being more anxious.

The adult voles that had been exposed to fluoxetine during gestation had symptoms similar to those of autism:

  • fewer oxytocin and vasopressin receptors in the amygdala (fear center)
  • fewer oxytocin receptors in the reward center (oxytocin receptors here make social interaction rewarding)

According to the article,

“Changes to the oxytocin system could underlie changes in social behavior,” says Larke.


Company Benefits: On Four Legs

Udupi one-earBy Lauren Penrod

Why is there an entire holiday dedicated to bringing your dog to work? Because it's good for the pets and the people. Having dogs in the workplace has been shown to decrease work-related stress levels and can even increase worker productivity.

That's because when people interact with dogs, it increases their levels of relaxing, calming brain chemicals like oxytocin. One small study showed that both people and their dogs had elevated levels of oxytocin when they interacted. But there are plenty of other studies showing that oxytocin goes up during positive social interactions with people, so why shouldn't it be the same with dogs.

What is rarely discussed, however, is the impact this can have on a business, particularly small startups to mid-sized businesses. Aside from happy workers, the benefits of animal-related happiness extend to the inner workings of the company. Allowing dogs in the workplace is pretty much a freebie to employers, while increasing productivity. How's that for ROI?

Why?

A recent study from the Virginia Commonwealth University found that employees who brought their dogs to work experienced:

  • Lower stress levels throughout the work day
  • Higher levels of job satisfaction and perceived positive organizational support: Employees feel that the employer cares about his or her personal and professional development.
  • Increased communication between employees: Dogs are an easy thing to chat about
  • Health benefits and decreased absenteeism.
  • Researchers found that groups with a dog in the room rated their group members higher on trust and team cohesion measures than those with no dog.
  • Increased productivity: Having a dog reminds employees to stand up and stretch, take the dog outside, and to take breaks every so often Studies indicate this increases productivity.

Not only are you increasing productivity and workflow, you are genuinely tricking the mind into increased levels of happiness, and satisfaction. Increased employee satisfaction means employee retention, and less money spent unnecessarily training to backfill positions of lost employees.

High Returns, and Low Costs

The average start-up has little to no expendable income for frivolous things like kegerators in the break room, popcorn stations, or free gym memberships. So if your company isn’t quite to the point where you can provide free birthday vacations, unlimited Apple products, or all-inclusive gym memberships, bringing a dog to work is low cost to the employer and has added benefit to both parties. No longer will the employee have to pay for puppy day care, or worry about hurrying home to let their dog outside.

When you compare the cost of allowing dogs in the workplace, with other stress-relieving benefits, such as paid or discounted health and fitness passes, the cost-to-benefit ratio is a landslide win for the dogs. For example, if you have 100 employees, and you provide each of them with a gym membership, the annual cost could range from $12,000 to $36,000.

The average cost of dogs at work is increased "break time." But break time can not only increase employee focus, but improve employees' overall health, lowering absenteeism and health-care costs.

Plenty of research has shown the ROI on providing benefits instead of cash to employees. Millennials are no longer looking for companies with the highest salary (although it doesn’t hurt either, let’s be honest). They are looking for benefits. And not the type of benefits our parents and grandparents were looking for, rather, work-life balance benefits, fun benefits that prevent us from feeling like a machine for the man- ultimately something that separates one company from another. Keeping goodemployees happy is pays off in improved retention, and it’s the continued ability to grow and become better with the help of invested employees.

Staying out of the Dog House

Preparing for potential issues and discussing them ahead of time is one way to reduce shock and over-excitement.

There are genuine concerns when inviting furry friends into the office space, so you may want to try to integrate this policy slowly by testing it out first.

Some things to be aware of and prepare for are:

  • Determine how many people in the office have allergies to dogs.
  • Determine whether this is a cultural office change that employees desire
  • Have specific requirements of owners:

○     Leash-trained

○     Well-behaved

○     House-broken

○     Owners must clean up after pets inside, and outside

○     All vaccinations up to date

○     Well-groomed

○     Gets along well with other animals

  • Determine how many pets are allowed in the office on a daily basis- and a maximum capacity for the animals.

Getting Started       

Keeping in mind that there are legal reasons for why someone would need their animal next to them at all times, such as the case with service, dogs. But for the remainder of the animals, there ought to be protocol when implementing this type of company benefit.

Here are a few ideas of how to launch a dog atmosphere in your office:

  • Have a test pet. Only one pet per week for 4 weeks. This could be used as a lottery system, and the winner gets to bring their dog.
  • Start with a manager's dog. This dog could potentially have less interaction with employees, but enough to test how productive employees would still react.
  • Each person can bring the dog on one 10 minute walk per week.
  • Start with hypoallergenic dogs. Determine if there are any people with allergies in the office.
  • Create pet-free zones, a few areas where the dogs are not allowed. Examples may be: bathrooms, a section of the building where those who are allergic sit, or in the break room.

Generally knowing whether this is a cultural shift your office is interested in should be relatively apparent. Companies that have integrated dogs into their office have reported a significant impact on the hiring process. Evidently many companies that have dogs in the office tend to hire individuals with the same interests and overall acceptance of animals. This has led to a better vibe, uniqueness, relationship building, and overall familiarity within the office- leading to higher retention of employees.

It sounds like these policies will benefit everyone involved. Now go work like a dog!

Lauren Penrod is the mother to two poodle mixes and is expecting her first child in November. She is born and raised in Boise, Idaho and spends her free time freelance writing and planning too far into the future.