Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Meet Stella — the pup who knows how to use 29 human words
"What a shock," said no dog lover ever.
- A speech language pathologist has taught her puppy Stella to use 29 words.
- Stella "speaks" by stepping on large buttons programmed with recordings of words.
- The dog expresses her desires, comments on household events, and offers opinions.
It's obvious that dogs have the capacity to understand human words. The family canine's response to "out," "walk," or "car" is both helpful and entertaining for a human, and a source of significant excitement for a pooch. Each owner or family teaches its dog a vocabulary their pet agreeably learns, with the exception of "no" and "bad," of course. So if dogs can understand our words, what kind of communication would be possible if they were able to voice them as well?
Speech language pathologist (SLP) Christina Hunger uses Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices in her job and decided to see if one could give her dog Stella a chance to use her words. The results of her experiment are amazing.
Stella's vocabulary is up now to 29 words, and she can fluidly string them together to express her desires and her feelings.
A speech language pathologist's idea
View this post on Instagram
We are all smiles this Saturday morning because Stella is KILLING us with her communication!!! First we gave Stella new food for breakfast, which turns out she did not like 👎🏼 After walking away from her bowl multiple times, she said, “Eat no” and laid on the couch. Then we were cleaning up a bit when Stella told us, “All done walk happy walk happy want.” Someone sure wants us to enjoy the weekend! As if that weren’t enough, Stella declared “Stella bye love you” and stood in front of the door. 👋🏼❤️ I just can’t say it enough, this is AMAZING!!! • • • • • #hunger4words #talkingdog #everyonedeservesavoice #speechtherapy #AAC #slp #corewords #SLPeeps #earlyintervention #languagedevelopment #dogsofinstagram #dogmom #dogs #animalpsychology #doglover #sandiegodog #catahoula #blueheeler #smartdog #dogcommunication #mydogtalks #SLPdog #dognition #animalcommunication #interspeciescommunication #loveanimals #respectanimals
A post shared by Christina Hunger, MA, CCC-SLP (@hunger4words) on
Hunger has a blog explaining what's going on with Stella, who's an 18-month-old Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix. The blog is called Hunger for Words. Her experiment was inspired by a quotation of Rosemary Crossley's:
"Not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say."
Hunger explains that every human has two sorts of language capacities. First is receptive language, the ability to understand the meanings of words and sentences we hear. Dogs as noted above, clearly have receptive language.
Expressive language is how we communicate to others using words and sentences, written words, gestures, and facial expressions. Dogs regularly express themselves by barking, growling, with speech-like moaning, sighing, and of course, jumping in excitement. Hunger considers these all to be expressive language, canine-style, which suggests that they share our desire to communicate.
For the mechanics of helping Stella use human words for expressing herself without a human vocal apparatus, Hunger turned to AAC technology as a pathway forward.
AAC devices are computer-based instruments that present symbols for words as big, touchable buttons. When a button is touched, the associated word sounds. Speech-challenged children learn to trigger the words they want the machine to say for them, put them together in sentences, and allow them to begin to, as Hunger says, "experience the power of language."
Stella's language lessons
To get started with Stella, Hunger and her fiancé Jake programmed a single button on a simple speech sound board. A press of the button plays back the word "outside," a concept right in a dog's wheelhouse. Hunger recalls, "Every time we took Stella outside we pushed 'outside' before opening the door. After a few weeks of modeling, Stella showed us she was aware of what was happening. When I would ask, 'Outside? Stella, want to go outside?' she began looking down at the button, looking up at me, and barking. As an SLP I knew this was a huge step in the right direction." Soon Stella was pressing the button herself when she wanted to be go out.
Other buttons were quickly programmed either with words the couple frequently used with Stella, or things they thought she herself might want to communicate, such as "eat, water, play, walk, no, come, help, bye, love you." The results were startling:
"If Jake and I were distracted, Stella began saying 'play' repeatedly until we threw her toy or engaged in tug of war. Stella would walk to her water bowl, notice it was empty and say 'water.' If we had finished dinner and didn't mention going for a walk yet, Stella would say 'walk' multiple times while staring at us. If her toy was stuck under the couch, she would say 'help' and stand right where she needed Jake or I to look. When our friends were putting their jackets on or were standing by the door, she would say 'bye' to them. Jake and I were simply amazed."
As time went by, says Hunger, Stella began using language in a manner similar to the way we do. (She's been learning words since last January.) Not restricting words' use to her needs, she began providing commentary: "This first happened when I was watering my plants. Stella said "water" while watching me, even though her water dish was full."
Most exciting is that Stella now puts words together for more complex communication, including reprimands for her humans. For example, animals couldn't care less about our clock adjustments in the fall and spring. "One afternoon," recalls Hunger, "shortly after the Daylight Savings time change, Stella said, 'eat' repeatedly at about 3:00 PM. When Jake and I did not feed her dinner this early she said, 'love you no' and walked into the other room."
Another example: The time she pressed "Want," "Jake," Come," and planted herself by the door. Upon Jake's eventual return, she hit the "Happy" button and rolled over for a tummy rub.
We've seen examples, most notably gorilla Koko, of animals who've acquired the ability to communicate using human words, and dog owners would hardly doubt their own dog's affinity for receptive language — expressive language doesn't seem like that much of a leap. In addition, scientists consider average dog intelligence to be roughly similar to a human two-year-old's, and that's right about the time toddlers start talking.
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>
The first rule of Vulture Club: stay out of Portugal.
So you're a vulture, riding the thermals that rise up over Iberia. Your way of life is ancient, ruled by needs and instincts that are way older than the human civilization that has overtaken the peninsula below, and the entire planet.
"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy<p>Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a <a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the_expanse" target="_blank">Rotten Tomato</a> average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.</p><p>Best.</p><p>Show.</p><p>Ever. </p>
Contrary to what some might think, the brain is a very plastic organ.
As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active.