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Animal Instinct: Paging Dr. Dog to Diagnose Disease

By SANETTE TANAKA, Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2012

Many dogs can be trained to sit, fetch and roll over. Now, pups are being trained to detect disease and help patients in distress. Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri, explains how dogs can be useful in the medical field.

DIABETES

Dogs can be trained to detect low blood sugar levels in diabetics by picking up scents that go unnoticed by humans. Upon detection, the dog springs into action—”kind of like sounding an alarm,” Dr. Johnson says. Dogs may nudge the diabetic, fetch a blood-glucose monitoring kit or press a button on the phone to call 911.

SEIZURES

Researchers don’t know what exactly enables a dog to detect seizures, but some dogs may notice a certain scent or subtle behavioral change that occurs right before an attack. Teaching a dog to pick up on these signs is difficult, Dr. Johnson says, and many seizure-response dogs simply have an innate ability to recognize when something is wrong. During the attack, dogs can seek help, move dangerous objects out of the way and lie next to the person.

PTSD

A relatively new type of service dog can aid people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. These dogs typically serve as companions to war veterans. Dogs can help ease the anxiety and panic that often comes with the condition by leading the way around a corner or positioning themselves between people and their handler. In a stressful social situation, the handler can signal the dog, which then barks loudly and gives the handler a reason to make a graceful exit.

CANCER

Dogs can also put their acute sense of smell to use by identifying certain cancer cells. Dr. Johnson notes that dogs have been trained to pick out bladder cancer cells by sniffing urine samples, while other researchers report that dogs have been able to identify lung and breast cancers by smelling patients’ breath, and melanoma by licking their owners’ skin.

 

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A Brain Flex to Help Athletes Train for Better Performance in Competition

Neurofeedback, also known as neurotherapy and neurobiofeedback, is used by athletes to train their brains to function better during competition. It was originally used to treat conditions such as epilepsy, attention deficit disorder and migraines. “This is a technology that has also been used to enhance brain performance in Broadway musicians, executives—athletics are a new frontier,” says Robert Coben, director and chief neuropsychologist of NeuroRehabilitation & Neuropsychological Services, P.C., in Massapequa Park, N.Y. Dr. Coben uses it to help treat people with autism.

The program that Olympic beach-volleyball player Kerri Walsh-Jennings uses was developed by Neurotopia, which started using the program on Red Bull-sponsored athletes in 2009.

Neurofeedback maps how the brain is working to show its limitations and weaknesses, says Dr. Coben. “We can then train the brain to improve based on that feedback,” he says. The patient enters a room and has several EEG sensors placed on the head. Measurements are displayed using video displays or sound.

Videogames are often used as a way to measure activity. “The patient’s mind is controlling the game so if it’s a race car and the car crashes or stalls it’s a sign the patient’s concentration has wavered,” he says. A typical session lasts 30 to 40 minutes.

The brain training “seems to help athletes stay where they need to be in their minds to perform tasks and stay in the moment,” says Dr. Coben. “A golfer, for example, is able to keep distractions out and focus on a shot. Or a tennis player who had a bad shot can refocus quickly and get back into the zone.”

—Jen Murphy, Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2012

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