Zoobiquity: Mood Swings and Teenage Gazelles

The teenage years seem to be every parent’s bittersweet nightmare. Sleepless nights and speeding tickets often lead to questions along the lines of “Why is my [insert age ending in ‘teen’] year old acting out?” or “Why were you doing 50 in a 35?” Yet the concept of adolescence among humans is not exactly breaking news. Physicians and their colleagues in the scientific world have linked behaviors commonly associated with teenagers — mood swings, excessive risk taking, angst, etc. — with natural underdevelopment of the brain. To be brief, the development of the brain, most notably the Prefrontal Cortex, slows down during the teenage years. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for a majority of human decision making, thus excessively risky behavior that does not seem to be on par with the relative maturity of the teen can ultimately be linked to this cranial underdevelopment.

Zoobiquity is the study of connections between human physiology or health and that of other species. The book, aptly named, Zoobiquity, written by Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, is an overview of studies linking development and diseases of humans with other animals. During the interview and book discussion at Francis W. Parker School on November 9th, Horowitz and Bowers called for increased collaboration between veterinarians and physicians, pointing to the vast array of mutual diseases between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.  The co-authors discussed obesity trends among populations of mammals, a connection between the presence of “sway-backs” (Lordosis) among both horses and humans, and the shared stages of development between gazelles, other mammals and humans, notably adolescence.

As long as the concept adolescence has been common knowledge, it has rarely been studied in other animals, despite similar trends of neurological and physical growth. Horowitz and Bowers collaborated with physicians and veterinarians to observe similarities between pubescent Grant’s Gazelles and humans. What they saw were remarkable similarities between the risky behaviors of the two. Just as a seventeen year old boy may speed down Lincoln Ave until they get into their first “fender bender,” adolescent Gazelles tend to venture out dangerously close to predators until they experience the consequences of lingering around a cheetah that want to eat them. In both species, this behavior is ultimately due to an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, a stunning similarity.

As Horowitz and Bower continued their studies, they continued to encounter nearly identical diseases, disorders, development trends between humans and other clades of animals. With these similarities, come relatively similar treatment plans, and that is a key reason for this research. The authors hold that if there are clear parallels between the health of humans and animals, then there should be increased interaction between the respective caregivers: physicians and veterinarians.

The presentation this past Saturday was eye opening to someone like myself, someone with incredibly limited medical and veterinary knowledge. Based on their understanding of the topics, it seems absolutely imperative that professionals in both fields share their knowledge and studies if they wish to continue making strides in cures and solutions to problems that affect nearly all multicellular eukaryotic organisms. It was recently discovered that Beta blockers can be used with humans, but also with birds to treat heart and nervous disorders. This is just one advancement due to the collaboration between physicians and veterinarians, due to Zoobiquity.

On a side note, I appreciated the occasional nerdy comic relief of this presentation. Everybody in the room shared a chuckle when Bower joked that “Physician is merely a veterinarian that only deals with one species.”

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