Study of joy in animals may aid humans

It could lead to treatments for emotional problems

April 01, 2005|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - Tickling rats to make them chirp with joy may seem frivolous as a scientific pursuit, yet understanding laughter in animals may lead to revolutionary treatments for emotional illness, researchers suggest.

Joy and laughter, they say, are proving not to be uniquely human traits.

Roughhousing chimpanzees emit characteristic pants of excitement, their version of "ha-ha-ha" limited only by their anatomy and lack of breath control, researchers contend.

Dogs have their specific sound that spurs other dogs to play, and recordings of the sound can drastically reduce stress levels in shelters and kennels, according to the scientist who discovered it.

Even laboratory rats have been shown to chirp delightedly above the range of human hearing when wrestling with each other or being tickled by a keeper - the same vocalizations they make before receiving morphine or having sex.

Studying such sounds of joy may help us understand the evolution of human emotions and the brain chemistry underlying such emotional problems as autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, said Jaak Panksepp, a pioneering neuroscientist who discovered rat laughter.

Panksepp, of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, sums up the latest studies in this week's edition of the journal Science in hopes of alerting colleagues to results that he terms "spectacular." The research suggests that studying animal emotions - once a scientific taboo - seems to be moving rapidly into the mainstream.

"It's very, very difficult to find skeptics these days. The study of animal emotions has really matured. Things have changed completely from as recently as five years ago," said Mark Bekoff, an expert in canine play behavior and professor of biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Biologists suggest that nature apparently considers sounds of joy important enough to have conserved them during the evolutionary process.

"Neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain," Panksepp said, "and ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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