Dogs can help understand human OCD disorder
Kunming dogs, originating from Yunnan, are similar in appearance to the well recognized German Shepherd breeds revered by canine lovers around the world. Taller in stature than their European cousins and with a shorter coat, Kunming dogs were bred in the middle of the 20th Century and soon recognized as a valuable police and military breed with their sharp intuition and loyal demeanor. By 1988, they were officially recognised by the Chinese Public Security Bureau as an officially classified breed in their own right. As resourceful and useful the Kunming dog has been in previous decades, this intriguing breed may also bizarrely offer us the future secrets to how we treat Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
OCD is generally seen as a form of anxiety mental health disorder, with recurrent, intrusive and often distressing thoughts are obsessively mulled over. Sufferers of the condition may perform constant rituals in an effort to deal with or respond to the distress, for example washing their hands excessively. It is estimated that around 1.3 percent of the population suffers from this condition, making the mental health condition a significant minority alongside more well known conditions such as depression or generalized anxiety disorder.
A team of Chinese researchers from the Kunming institute of Zoology have found that there are vast similarities between the neural pathways which cause the mechanism behind OCD behaviors in both man and man's best friend. Given that we share much of the same genetic make up as our canine mammal counterparts, and both species being intelligent social animals, this may come as no surprise. In dogs, compulsive behaviors often present as chasing unseen objects, freezing on the spot and staring for no apparent reason, barking rhythmically or pacing and circling. In the Kunming breed of dogs, OCD symptoms often manifest as the latter mentioned circling behavior. In these dogs, their genetics were analyzed and indicated a large cross over in the same genes which cause excessive hand washing or other ritualistic OCD symptoms in human beings.
The study indicates that dogs with OCD may serve as a good model for human OCD, and therefore potentially pave the way for both better understanding of the disease and more effective treatments. Despite over one in a hundred people living with the condition, there is still much we need to learn about the neural pathways which cause such behaviors. Traditional therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy and medication often only go some way in helping the individual deal with the condition. A cure however, is currently still in the works. By demonstrating and using dogs as a model for the specific brain circuitry which is disrupted by OCD, this may offer to shed a new light on this elusive mental health condition.
It has long been known that dogs have proven a useful model for various physiological processes studied in humans. Dogs for example, share many of the same genes as humans for diabetes and obesity, providing scientists with a useful insight into how we can live healthier lives. This new research however, suggests that our relationship with man's best friend may go deeper. We share many of the same intelligent traits and cerebral depth, to the point where when things go wrong, our shared mental health conditions fall down to the same mechanisms and neural circuitry. Dogs may therefore soon provide clues to our own behaviors and secrets to our state of mind.
Barry He is a London-based columnist for China Daily