Early exposure to dogs might curb schizophrenia risk, Maryland researchers say

Man's best friend indeed.

Dog
Photo by Mike Burke on Unsplash
  • There is a growing understanding in the medical community of how important the immune system is for our mental health.
  • Much of the risk for mental illness is due to heritability, but a large portion of that risk is also due to the environment.
  • Since children are often exposed to pet dogs at a young age, it could be that their presence affects developing children's immune systems; new research on over a 1,000 study participants suggests that this may indeed be the case.


Scientists estimate that roughly 80 percent of an individual's risk for schizophrenia is attributable to heredity. Unfortunately, there is virtually nothing that can be done to reduce this risk; it's innate. The remaining 20 percent of risk, however, arises from environmental factors.

There are a few ways that we can reduce this risk. We can, for instance, ensure that mothers experience as little stress as possible during pregnancy and that they get adequate nutrition. We can protect children from abuse and trauma and discourage drug use. Now, new research out of Maryland suggests we can also keep a dog in the house.

The immune system and mental health

Many mental illnesses like schizophrenia have an environmental component. There's a developing understanding in the scientific community that mental illness and the immune system are linked. For example, research has shown that victims of childhood abuse are more susceptible to immune disorders and that chronic inflammation plays a role in diseases like depression.

Since pets are often introduced to young, developing children, studying the effect of their exposure on later mental illness rates is a reasonable avenue of research. Cats and dogs can change our environment and our immune systems by introducing allergens, viruses, and bacteria; by changing the home's microbiome; and — not least of all — by relieving stress and changing our brain chemistry as a result.

The researchers in this study therefore recruited a population of 1,371 men and women of varying ages, ethnicities, places of birth, and parental levels of education (as a means of measuring socioeconomic status). Of these, 396 had schizophrenia, 381 had bipolar disorder, and 594 served as controls. Then, these individuals were asked whether they had a pet dog or cat during their first 12 years of life.

Comparing pet ownership and the rates of the two mental illnesses, the researchers discovered that being exposed to a dog before the age of 13 had a huge effect on whether or not that person would later develop schizophrenia. Dog ownership cut the risk down by a staggering 25 percent.

"The largest apparent protective effect was found for children who had a household pet dog at birth or were first exposed after birth but before age 3," said lead author Robert Yolken in a statement.

"There are several plausible explanations for this possible 'protective' effect from contact with dogs," he added. "Perhaps something in the canine microbiome that gets passed to humans and bolsters the immune system against or subdues a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia."

Unfortunately for cat lovers, there was no similar impact from cat ownership on mental illness rates.

"However," said Yolken, "we did find a slightly increased risk of developing both disorders for those who were first in contact with cats between the ages of 9 and 12. This indicates that the time of exposure may be critical to whether or not it alters the risk."

Aside from this slight increase in risk from cats during this specific age range, neither pet appeared to have any effect on bipolar disease.

A major impact

Dog

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

The reason why this effect might exist wasn't made clear during this study — only that a link between dog ownership and schizophrenia exists. Considering that this protective effect was strongest when the very young (0–3) were exposed to dogs, it could very well be the case that exposure to dogs had some benefit for the children's developing immune systems.

But the study has its limitations, and other, unaccounted for variables could be causing this result. For example, dog ownership is more common in affluent families. Even though the study accounted for socioeconomic status through some indirect metrics (specifically, place of birth and parental level of education), it could still be the case that affluent, at-risk children are protected from the kinds of stressors that could trigger schizophrenia in addition to owning a dog.

However, if further research confirms this finding, it could have a major implications for 25,000 people every year — that's one quarter of the annual schizophrenia diagnoses in the U.S. Whether it's because of their microbiomes or their sunny personalities, man's best friend appears to be doing more for our mental state than we might assume.


This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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