Understanding joy in animals may lead

to treatments for illness.

Chicago Tribune

by: Peter Gorner

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.

Rough-housing 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 own specific sound that spurs other dogs to play, and recordings of the sound can dramatically 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 Pankseep, 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,” (2000) 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.”

Research in this area “is just the beginning wave of the future,” said comparative ethologist Gordon M. Burghardt of the University of Tennessee, who studies the evolution of play. “It will allow us to bridge the gap with other species.”

New investigative techniques often rely on super high-tech scanning wizardry, but the most important tool for scientists in this field is much more simple. “Tickles are the key,” Panksepp said. ‘They open up a previously hidden world.”   Panksepp had studied play vocalizations in animals for years before it occurred to him that they might be an ancestral form of laughter. “Then I went to the lab and tickled some rats. Tickled them gently around the nape of their necks. Wow!” The tickling made the rats chirp happily - “as long as the animal’s friendly toward you,” he said. “If not, you won’t get a single chirp, just like a child that might be very suspicious of an adult.”

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