Friday, July 23, 2010

Therapeutic Pets

In 1857 British novelist George Eliot wrote, “Animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions and they pass no criticism.”

I agree that they may be agreeable most of the time, but they most definitely ask questions (Can I eat that? Can we go now? Now? Now?), and pass criticism (If I can’t eat that, now, I will bite you).

One book on animal assisted therapy says, “And cats do have some behavioural problems.”

The therapeutic value of animals can be increased by combing it with volunteering. Some programs ask volunteers to bring their own animals in to patients and there are also programs where volunteers take working dogs out public to aid in training them.

Below are some of the positives and negatives of pet ownership.

Benefits –
* Increases exercise. Going out for walks, riding horses, or chasing kittens.
* Source of companionship. Even just the presence of something alive can be vitally invigorating.
* Helps build relationship skills. You might notice some things about how you treat yourself or others when you pay attention to how you treat your pet and learn what is and is not effective.
* Allows for meeting new people. Dog walking, clubs, going to the pet store.
* Increases responsibility and pride. It is one thing to be responsible for yourself when ill, but a great deal of worthiness can come from taking care of something else, sick or not.
* Adds structure and routine. A pet will ensure you get you out of bed in the morning to feed or walk it (and if you have a cat, very likely it will get you out of bed several times throughout the night as well). Also, especially with dogs, feeding and exercise will also be more scheduled
* Cute and furry (possibly).
* Commitment. It can be a healthy process to make a weighted decision and committing to it long-term.

Costs –
* Too much time with only your pet may cause you to lose the ability to verbally engage with other humans.
* Responsibility. Undertaking ownership of a pet that is too demanding, or having too many pets, may increase stress.
* Claws, teeth, fur, and bodily fluids.
* Abusing your pet. When you are manic or depressed or anxious and don’t want to be touch and something touches you, you may strike out. Generally speaking, it is also very easy to abuse animals verbally and physically. Though this may be on a smaller scale, it is not healthy for either animal or owner.
* Limits social outings. There might be places you can’t go because you can’t bring your pet or leave it behind for some time. Some people may be allergic and can’t come to your home.
* Commitment. Maybe not so much with fish, though they can live up to 10 years. But other animals need to be fed and cleaned. They also need a home, so moving internationally would be more difficult, though not impossible, with a pet.
* Cost. Food, litter, accessories, vet bills can add up (however, you can choose the type of pet you want based on your budget).

The scientific therapeutic value of pets is not compelling, but this may be due to flaws in study designs. Scientific American Mind has a very good article looking at anecdotal versus scientific evidence.

Dogs, horses, and dolphins are probably the most famous animal assisted therapy animals. Rabbits, other rodents, and birds are also used. Cats are used as well, but I am curious as to the frequency of this (there is a reason cats are not generally supposed to be out of bags).

Horses and dolphins have a particular character to them which can increase bond. I waver on the issue of swimming with dolphins, but I am not against it. More easily accessible though are stables offering trail rides which can be a casual way of engaging with a larger animal.

I have said a lot of negative things about cats here, but they are undeniably unique and wonderfully engaging animals.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Magnetoencephalography (MEG) is an imaging technique sharing components of EEG and fMRI. It uses the fluctuating electrical activity in the brain which induces a magnetic field in the active region which can then be measured using magnetometers. The magnetometers are commonly referred to as SQUIDs (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices). There are different orientations of the magnetometers – single, axial gradiometer, planar gradiometer – which are positioned above the head.

As with all superconductors, a very cold environment must be provided. SQUIDs are typically cooled with liquid helium which is maintained at its boiling temperature of 4K (for a reference point, liquid nitrogen freezes in liquid helium) and stored in a giant thermos called a dewar.

SQUIDs are sensitive to very small magnetic fields on the order of 5×10−18 T.
The magnetic fields generated in the brain are on the order of 10-15T. The Earth’s magnetic field is about 5.0 × 10-5T. So in order to obtain a signal clean of any ambient noise, the process must take place in a highly shielded room, including a very thick door with a strong vacuum seal (the room is similar to a vault). The walls of the room are composed of layers of aluminium and a ferromagnetic material.

In comparison to the MEG, an EEG measures electrical activity directly and requires electrodes to be applied directly to the head. Also, direct measures of electrical activity can become distorted as the signal passes through ions and the skull, whereas such distortion is not obtained with MEG.

There are fewer safety concerns with an MEG than an MRI since there is no large magnetic field involved. The images obtained can be combined with images obtained in fMRI studies by measuring specific points on the head after the MEG and then overlaying the two images.

Here is a paper that discusses in more detail MEG and EEG.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Exercise Prohibition in Eating Disorders Programs

Earlier this year it had been brought to my attention that there exists eating disorder (ED) programs which prohibit exercise. Presumably, this is to encourage weight gain and discourage over-exercising. However, the idea is absurd and archaic in my opinion. Regular monitoring puts stress on patients and staff, and diverts energy from healing.

As with food, exercise can not be avoided in daily life and a complete ED program would integrate healthy exercise as it does healthy eating.

Additionally, exercise has been proven to improve mood and can also give patients a sense of responsibility and independence.

Certain precautions when dealing with patients who may be physically compromised such as with low blood pressure need to be considered. However, in an ED program all exercise is monitored by a medical staff member trained to handle emergencies.

Depending on the physical status of the patient, varying degrees of intensity of exercise could be tolerated. Because of the specific nature of eating disorders, mindful engagement with the body should be encouraged in all exercise routines. This is easily accomplished with a moderate activity such as yoga (St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver incorporates yoga into their ED program).

References: 1, 2, 3, 4