05/20/2016

Dog Longevity, Depression Treatments, and the Trouble With Wolves

12:03 minutes

A decades-old drug called rapamycin has been found to offer rats, mice, and worms longer lives with no side effects. Now, researchers are studying its effects on the longevity of dogs—and seeing positive results. Buzzfeed News science editor Virginia Hughes shares what the studies have shown so far. She also discusses new research on alternatives to antidepressants, as well as the latest in the fight against Zika, as part of this week’s news roundup.

Plus, science writer Virginia Morell describes the controversy around wild wolves in the American west.

Segment Guests

Virginia Hughes

Virginia Hughes is science editor at BuzzFeed News in New York, New York.

Virginia Morell

Virginia Morell is a correspondent for Science Magazine, and is author of Animal Wise (Broadway Books). She’s based in Ashland, Oregon.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’ve ever loved a dog– and who hasn’t– you also know that it also comes with the hardship of eventually losing your furry friend to old age and decline. But what if you could delay that personal pain and keep Fido healthy longer? Well, scientists are looking at one possible answer, and my first guest has the story and other recent science news. Virginia Hughes, science editor at Buzzfeed News. Welcome back to Science Friday.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Give me this hopeful news about my pooch.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: I know. I love this story. So yeah. This week, a group of scientists from the University of Washington announced some very early data from a very cool study about dogs. So they’re putting together this giant study of companion animals– so pet dogs, not just dogs that are raised in a colony or something– and they’re trying to learn a lot more about how they age. So they’re collecting data like, what they eat and how their heart health is and how much they exercise and also what’s in the houses that they live in.

And one of things that they started to do with a small group of dogs, about 25 dogs, is give them a drug called Rapamycin, which is a really old drug, and it’s actually been approved for use in humans for a long time. In humans it’s used for people who are getting organ transplants as a way to suppress the immune system to make sure your body doesn’t reject the organ. And in humans it’s used in really high doses. But in low doses in all kinds of other species, including yeast, worms, and mice, it turns out that rapamycin can extend lifespan for up to 25%, even 30%.

So the hope is that it’ll also work in dogs, and that’s what they’re testing. So, so far, they’ve given it to the small group of dogs for about 10 weeks. The good news is after 10 weeks, the dogs’ cardiac function improved quite a bit. Yeah. Now we won’t know yet for a while whether it actually extends their life but, it would be pretty great to have a couple of years extra with my dog. I would love that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. Now all the cat lovers are going to call and say, why did they leave the cats out?

VIRGINIA HUGHES: But the researchers did say that it’s much harder to work with cats than it is with dogs.

IRA FLATOW: We all know that if you have a cat. Let’s move on to the president. President Obama had some strong words for Congress over funding for Zika virus program. Yeah.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: This is a big fight this week in Congress. So obviously, Zika is approaching the US as the mosquitoes that transmit it move north. So people in Florida and Louisiana are starting to get a little bit nervous. So back in February, Obama asked Congress for $1.9 billion to fund prevention efforts like mosquito control and trying to build up vaccine program and also things just like basic testing for Zika.

So this week, the Senate passed a bill for $1.1 billion in emergency funding, which is almost what he wanted. Not quite. But the House didn’t quite get there. So the House passed its own version of the bill for just $622 million dollars, and a lot of that money in the House version would actually be taken from existing Ebola programs as opposed to new funding.

So now the House and Senate are going to have to try to resolve these pretty big differences between their bills and then scientists are pretty angry that it’s taken so long, especially as the clock is ticking.

IRA FLATOW: Sort of the whack-a-mole theory of disease control. Whichever one’s popping up first we’re going to put money in there and forget about the other one.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Right. And scientists point out Ebola isn’t exactly over yet. It’s not in the news anymore, but it’s certainly not gone.

IRA FLATOW: So I have to wait to see them iron that out in committees.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Let’s hope so.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about two new studies showing some promise in the quest for world alternative depression treatments.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Yeah. So obviously antidepressant drugs are a mainstay of depression treatment. And millions of people have taken them and they work for a lot of people, but they also don’t work for a lot of people, and they also come with a lot of side effects. So researchers have been on the hunt for alternative treatments, and two of them happened to pop up in small but somewhat provocative studies this week. So the first one was testing magic mushrooms or, more scientifically, psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in psychedelic drugs.

So this study looked at 12 people with major depression and found that most of them felt significant relief from their depression for a number of weeks after taking this drug. And five were free from depression three months later. So the idea is that these hallucinations can help maybe break the cycle of negative thinking that comes along with depression. But obviously, the downside is that the hallucinations aren’t always pleasant, and you can imagine a trip gone bad.

So the other study offered a much more benign treatment, and that was just plain old heat. Heat lamps. Infrared light. Yeah. So it looked at 30 people with depression. These folks had mild depression. Half of them got about an hour of heat treatment using infrared lamps, and the other half went through a very similar set up, but it was just a little bit of heat, not much heat, so that they wouldn’t know which group they were in.

And it turns out that the group that got the full heat felt a lot better for at least six weeks following the treatment. Yeah, so–

IRA FLATOW: That is amazing.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Maybe that’s why I’m so happy that is sunny in

IRA FLATOW: That’s why people go to the Caribbean. There’s something there. They know they get warmer they feel better. Finally, let’s [INAUDIBLE] a little weird one. Here’s a weird one. Movie theaters may smell like you’re feeling?

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Kind of.

IRA FLATOW: They smell like we’re feeling.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: It is pretty far out. So this is a study with researchers who collected air samples from two different movie theaters in Germany over the course of about six weeks, and they measured the composition of about 100 chemicals in the air of these movie theaters. So as you can imagine, if you’ve been in a movie theater, over the course of a movie, as people breathe in this room, the chemical composition gets denser and denser with chemicals that are coming on your mouth.

But it’s not just that simple, that accumulation. So it turns out this during certain scenes of the Hunger Games 2, for example, carbon dioxide and isoprene spiked. So the researchers say that the carbon dioxide could be because people were breathing heavier, maybe if they were scared. And isoprene, which is actually released during muscle movement, might have been because people were getting more fidgety. So it’s all pretty speculative, but I think it’s kind of a nice reminder that our emotions and our bodies are tightly connected.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a great story. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

VIRGINIA HUGHES: Oh, no problem.

IRA FLATOW: Virginia Hughes, science editor for Buzzfeed News. And now it’s time to play Good Thing Bad Thing.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Because every story has a flip side. The issue of wolves in America in the American West is a touchy one, with reintroductions of predators to areas also used for farming and ranching. You can imagine what’s going on there. And over the years wolf populations have fluctuated, with the wolf going on and off and on and off the endangered species list several times. Joining me now to talk about the good and bad with wolves in the west is Virginia Morell. She’s a correspondent for Science and author of the book Animal Wise. She joins me from Ashland, Oregon. Welcome to Science Friday.

VIRGINIA MORELL: Thank you, Ira. It’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. This is a contentious issue, right? Especially in places where wolves come into contact with ranchers and livestock. What’s the good here?

VIRGINIA MORELL: Well, the good is that this new study is the first test of a widely held belief that’s used by government agencies, wildlife agencies wherever there are large carnivores. And that’s this idea that if you have official sanctioned culling of carnivores, of wolves every so often, you keep their numbers in check. That that will help people come to love wolves and they won’t kill so many illegally. So it’s the first test of this widely held idea. It’s used everywhere around the world to keep predators in check.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s the bad thing?

VIRGINIA MORELL: The bad thing is that it doesn’t work. Details details.

[LAUGHING]

It actually showed that where they are culling wolves, people then actually poach more wolves. So the culling doesn’t breed more tolerance or more goodwill for wolves. That wolf hatred continues to be a very strong emotion. And people take it into their own hands, whether the wolves are being supposedly controlled by the government agencies by killing them. People continue to poach them. And in fact, they poach them even more when the government is also killing them.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Because they just think they have the free rein to do it even though it’s no longer permissible?

VIRGINIA MORELL: Well, they think that maybe what is happening is that when the wolves are being controlled like that by the government, that somehow the wolves are out of control and maybe the government needs more help. And so I’m going to help them out. I’ll go kill some wolves too.

[LAUGHING]

But there have been other studies that show that killing wolves as a way to prevent livestock predation doesn’t work. And in fact, in areas where they have taken out wolf packs or individuals wolves say, to kind of a revenge killing. You killed our sheep, we’re going to kill you. Actually, the next year there’s an increase in livestock killing.

IRA FLATOW: You know what? Believe it or not, I have wolves in my neighborhood in the ‘burbs here.

VIRGINIA MORELL: You have coywolves. You have coywolves.

IRA FLATOW: We have wolves. And I’ve learned that that’s part of the neighborhood now, you know? I don’t let my dog out in the backyard.

VIRGINIA MORELL: That’s right. I have mountain lions. We had a mountain lion walk down our street a little while ago, a couple months ago, and we have wolves about 30 miles from where I live. And yes, in fact, one of the scientists told me that on the outskirts of Berlin, they’re almost 300 wolves. He says don’t go to Yellowstone to see the wolves. Go to Berlin.

IRA FLATOW: So I guess the answer is just to learn how to live with them as part of nature.

VIRGINIA MORELL: We have to learn. Yes. It’s going to be a real learning process, because it’s– wolves are not going to go away. They are protected animals, whether by the federal government or by states, and they are spreading. So it’s not as if they’re anywhere close to what they where. There were two million wolves here in North America at the time Columbus arrived, and today there are about 5,000, 6,000 in a handful of states.

But they are indeed. They are making their way west and east. They are now in California, which may be the best place for them, because Californians are very tolerant. It’s a state that already has 5,000, 6,000 mountain lions, and they don’t allow any hunting. They get along quite well with mountain lions.

IRA FLATOW: That’s good to hear.

VIRGINIA MORELL: Yeah, it is.

IRA FLATOW: There’s hope. Thank you, Virginia. Virginia Morell is a correspondent for Science Magazine and author of the book Animal Wise.

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