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Cow cuddling is getting ever more popular, but what's the science behind using animals for relaxation?
- An Indian non-profit hopes to help people relax by giving them cuddle sessions with cows.
- This is not the first such center where you can chill out with cattle.
- Like other emotional support animals, the proven health benefits are limited.
Who needs a therapy dog when you can hug a cow?<p> Located outside of the Indian city of Gurugram, the new Cow Cuddling Centre will be run by a non-profit <a href="https://interestingengineering.com/ngo-launches-cow-cuddling-therapy-center-in-india" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">headed</a> by the former Chairman of the Animal Welfare Board of India, SP Gupta.</p><p>Pitched as a way to escape the stresses of modern life and "forget all your problems," the founders of the establishment have high hopes for it, suggesting that spending time with the cows can cure "respiratory diseases, blood pressure, spinal pain, heart problem, depression but also sadness, anxiety and all kinds of tensions" in a <a href="https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/cow-science-exam-may-be-postponed-but-an-ngo-is-launching-a-cow-cuddling-centre-in-haryana-535024.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">press statement</a>.</p><p>While you might be thinking that cow cuddling only exists in India because of the cultural importance placed on the animal there, <a href="http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20201008-is-cow-hugging-the-worlds-new-wellness-trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Dutch beat them to it.</a> Cow cuddling farms exist in the United States as <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/12/style/self-care/cow-cuddling-therapy.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">well</a>.</p>
Is there any science behind the idea of cuddling with a cow over a more traditional, travel-sized pet?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QG3fOOT7xWQ" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Like many claims about emotional support animals of any kind, there is a limited amount of data on this.</p><p>What studies do exist on emotional support animals are <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08927936.2015.11435396" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">small</a>, <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15228932.2013.765734" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">limited</a>, and should be considered to be the beginnings of more extensive <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1479-8301.2009.00268.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">studies</a> which will settle the question of how much help these animals can <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5127627/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">provide</a>. This is different from work on well-trained service animals, which are <a href="https://content.iospress.com/articles/neurorehabilitation/nre1345" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proven</a> to be very <a href="http://www.cf4aass.org/uploads/1/8/3/2/18329873/psd_and_veterans_living_with_ptsd_-_gillett_march_23_2014_2.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">helpful</a> when doing the <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229913002148" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">tasks</a> they are specially trained for. <br></p><p>Regarding cows, the <a href="http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20201008-is-cow-hugging-the-worlds-new-wellness-trend" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">BBC</a> suggests that chilling with cows can cause relaxation by boosting oxytocin levels in humans, though they do not cite a specific study supporting that stance. One often-referenced study from several years back suggests the cows might like and get relaxation out of cuddling <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168159107000445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">too</a>.<br></p><p>However, Dr. <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/contributors/michael-ungar-phd" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Michael Ungar</a> suggests in this <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-resilience/202001/cuddle-cow-the-new-psychotherapy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Psychology Today</a> article that cow cuddling might be comparable to equine therapy, which, while also lacking in rigorous scientific support, does seem to provide some people certain benefits.</p><p>The news magazine <a href="https://www.indiatoday.in/india-today-insight/story/cuddling-a-cow-the-latest-wellness-trend-1764558-2021-01-31" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">India Today </a>featured a brief interview with professor Ritu Dangwal, who also suggests that cow cuddling might have some benefits:</p><p> "As a psychologist and someone who herself experienced it, being with cows is extremely therapeutic. We are stuck in a rat race and our anxiety is at an all-time high. Being with an emotive animal, one that has no judgement and loves unconditionally, does wonders."</p><p>What relaxes some people might be somewhat surprising to others or difficult to generalize in a scientific study. While you might not get prescribed a day in the pasture anytime soon, cow cuddling is an increasingly popular way to relax that gets people back into nature and interacting with animals in a way that many of us rarely get the chance to. While the science isn't quite all there, some people might find it worth the time.</p><p>Just be sure to wear closed-toed shoes if you go.</p>
Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
Can playing video games really curb the risk of depression? Experts weigh in.
- A new study published by a UCL researcher has demonstrated how different types of screen time can positively (or negatively) influence young people's mental health.
- Young boys who played video games daily had lower depression scores at age 14 compared to those who played less than once per month or never.
- The study also noted that more frequent video game use was consistently associated with fewer depressive symptoms in boys with lower physical activity, but not in those with high physical activity levels.
How do video games and social media impact young kids?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY3NDY2Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM5OTQwMn0.FUGlBVN0uGa9jYXpbSjHssFpcdJGcpM-hsA8vJb1mJc/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C488%2C0%2C111&height=700" id="d4200" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6a1be92721c981f409d8c9efb574fe45" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="two kids sitting on the couch playing video games together" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
The study gained interesting insight into the link between depression rates at age 14 and video game usage a few years earlier.
Credit: Pixel-Shot on Adobe Stock<p>The study's lead author, Ph.D. student Aaron Kandola, explains to <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2021-02/ucl-bwp021721.php" target="_blank">Eurekalert</a>: "Screens allow us to engage in a wide range of activities. Guidelines and recommendations about screen time should be based on our understanding of how these different activities might influence mental health and whether that influence is meaningful."</p><p><strong>How this study was conducted: </strong></p><ul><li>These findings come as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, where over 11,000 (n = 11,341) adolescents were surveyed. </li><li>Depressive symptoms were measured with a Moods and Feelings Questionnaire (age 14). </li><li>"Exposures" were listed as the frequency of video games, social media, and internet usage (age 11). </li><li>Physical activity was also accounted for on a self-reporting basis. </li></ul><p><strong>When comparing young boys (age 11) who played video games to those who don't, the study showed interesting results: </strong></p><ul><li>Boys who played video games <strong>daily</strong> had 24.3 percent lower depression scores at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never). </li><li>Boys who played video games <strong>at least once per week</strong> had 25.1 percent lower depression scores at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never). </li><li>BOoys who played video games <strong>at least once per month</strong> had 31.2 percent lower depression scored at age 14 (compared to those who played less than once per month or never). </li></ul><p><strong>When comparing how depression impacted young girls based on their social media usage, the researchers found that:</strong></p><ul><li>Compared with less than once per month/never social media usage, using social media most days at age 11 was associated with a 13% higher depression score at age 14. </li></ul>
Can playing video games actually be beneficial?<p>There has been a lot of speculation in the past two decades about screen-time, social media, and video games. Whether it's <a href="https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2003/10/anderson" target="_blank">linking video games to violence</a> and obesity or <a href="https://childmind.org/article/is-social-media-use-causing-depression/#:~:text=In%20several%20recent%20studies%2C%20teenage,who%20spent%20the%20least%20time." target="_blank">linking social media to depression and anxiety</a> — this seems to be a controversial question. According to the research, the answer to this question is yes, video games can be beneficial in moderation when paired with physical activity and real-life application.</p><p><strong>Adding in some physical activity could be the difference between beneficial and harmful.</strong></p><p>The above-mentioned study also noted that more frequent video game use was consistently associated with fewer depressive symptoms in boys with lower physical activity, but not in those with high physical activity levels. </p><p><strong>Previous studies have concluded there are some mental health benefits to playing video games. </strong></p><p><a href="https://edition.cnn.com/2020/11/16/health/video-games-mental-health-study-wellness-scli-intl/index.html#:~:text=It%20found%20that%20time%20spent,reporting%20that%20they%20felt%20happier.&text=%22In%20fact%2C%20play%20can%20be,withhold%20those%20benefits%20from%20players.%22" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A 2020 study</a> by the University of Oxford analyzed the impacts of playing two extremely popular games at the time: Nintendo's "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" and Electronic Arts' "Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville." The study used data and survey responses from over 3000 players in total — the games' developers shared anonymous data about people's playing habits, and the researchers surveyed those gamers separately about their well-being. </p><p><strong>Results of this study found that time spent playing these games was associated with players reporting that they felt happier. </strong></p><p>Additionally, previous studies (such as <a href="https://it.arizona.edu/blog/can-playing-video-games-make-you-smarter" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this University of Arizona study</a>) have linked video game usage with new learning opportunities: <em>"</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Games like Minecraft are being used in more and more classrooms around the country. MinecraftEdu (recently purchased by Microsoft), allows teachers to structure a sandbox-style play environment around any curriculum. Students can work together to learn the scientific method, build farms, or take advantage of turtle robots to learn basic programming. Not only do these activities improve team-building skills, but they give students the chance to develop and practice technological literacy."</p><p><strong>"Everything in moderation" is an important factor in determining whether video game use is beneficial or harmful. </strong></p><p>While there can be some positive impacts from playing video games, research (such as <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6676913/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this study conducted in 2013</a>) has also shown that people who spend a predominant part of their day gaming are at risk of showing lower educational and career attainment in addition to problems with peers and lower social skills. </p>
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Being a leader is about more than the job title. You have to earn respect.
- What does it take to be a leader? For Northwell Health president and CEO Michael Dowling, having an Ivy League degree and a large office is not what makes a leader. Leadership requires something much less tangible: influence.
- True leaders inspire people to follow and believe in them and the organization's mission by being passionate, having humility, and being a real part of the team. This is especially important in a field like health care, where guidance and teamwork save lives.
- Authenticity is also key. "Don't pretend, be real," says Dowling. "Accept your vulnerabilities, accept your weaknesses, know where your strengths are, and get people to belong."
From baboon hierarchies to the mind-gut connection, the path to defeating depression starts with understanding its causes.
- According to the World Health Organization, more than 264 million people suffer from depression. It is the leading cause of disability and, at its worst, can lead to suicide. Unfortunately, depression is often misunderstood or ignored until it is too late.
- Psychologist Daniel Goleman, comedian Pete Holmes, neuroscientist Emeran Mayer, psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, and more outline several of the social, chemical, and neurological factors that may contribute to the complex disorder and explain why there is not a singular solution or universal "cure" that can alleviate the symptoms.
- From gaining insight into how the brain-gut connection works and adopting a more Mediterranean diet, to seeking help from medical or spiritual practitioners, depression is a personal battle that requires a personalized strategy to keep it at bay, as well as more research and understanding.