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Stress, infoxication and monkey business

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01 June 2017, at 1:00am

Dr DAVID WILLIAMS investigates the apparent increase in stress that veterinary students – and in some cases their patients – have to deal with these days

IT MIGHT, I GUESS, BE THAT I’M LOOKING BACK with rose tinted spectacles, but it seems to me that we were far less stressed by exams 30 years ago when I was in the clinical years of vet school. I particularly remember writing an essay on the fascinating topic of comparing the forelimbs of the bird and horse. The equine omothoracic junction allowed a maximal stride length and the avian wing had a similarly extended reach. What an interesting if somewhat unusual comparison to make. But with five minutes to go before the end of the exam I realised it was the hind limb we had been asked to write about! I had a few moments to scribble down the similarities and differences of the stay apparatus and the digital tendonlocking mechanism that allows birds to perch. The fact I had misread the question took me down to scraping a Bishop Desmond (a 2:2) rather than getting the first I was surely heading for (well, truth be told I never got better than a reasonable 2:1!), but it wasn’t the end of the world. A fair number of the students I teach these days get themselves in a real state over exams and I do feel it’s much more of an issue than for us when we were at college. But it’s a much wider problem. When I ask Dr Google, “Do more people feel stressed these days?” I get a plethora of reports that confirm my suspicion. A “Prospective Population Survey” in 1969 apparently suggested that 36% of women were stressed while the figure, Google tells me, is 75% today, although it wouldn’t give me anything more than that headline. Maybe PubMed would give results with a rather stronger foundation. Indeed, in March this year Garett and colleagues published “A longitudinal analysis of stress among incoming college freshmen” in the Journal of American College Health which showed – not surprisingly – that stress was elevated during examination periods. Women reported a greater stress level than men and increased stress level was significantly associated with lower sleep quality and greater negative emotions such as fear and anger. They showed that exercise was an effective stress coping strategy, but interestingly other coping methods such as internet usage, meditation and self-isolation were associated with higher stress. Well, a lot of that is pretty much common sense, isn’t it? Apart from the meditation bit, which I can’t quite see as being associated with higher stress. We certainly seem to see more stressed dogs today as well, I think, although I can’t find any hardcore evidence for this – more papers on the subject for sure, but that might just be an increased awareness of the problem. And awareness of ways of reducing it too – particularly dietary manipulation with simple molecules like tryptophan. That amino acid is key in the production of serotonin and that neurotransmitter has substantial influences on our mood.

Surfing and drowning

I thought I’d just refresh my memory on the area with a quick internet search. There is just so much research out there on serotonin in species as diverse as Caenorhabditis worms (the molecule is a key player in male mating behaviour) to elephants (central here in aggressive behaviour) that I was soon drowning in information. Just typing “anxious rats” into PubMed gave more than 30,000 papers written on studies using those rodents as models of anxiety. Interestingly, that sort of information overload seems a key feature in anxiety in many of our students – where at GCSE and A level they could know all the facts they needed to for their exams, at university one soon realises there is much more to be learned than one can possibly take in. And one of the problems is that the lecturers who end up doing the teaching are ones who – as students and now as lecturers – are quite at home in such a brain-stimulating environment. They don’t necessarily see that their students find negotiating such an “infoxication” (yes, apparently there is such a word!) anything like as easy as they did when they were students. But wait a moment – it does seem a big leap to go from talking about changes in specific molecules in the
brain to discussing complex feelings like information overload.
There is something in me that can cope with linking anxiety in dogs to an abnormal mix of neurotransmitters in the brain, but can we really say the same for people? Surely my complex thought processes can’t be put down to a few chemicals can they, and modelled by worms or rats? On the other hand, anti-depressants
such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors like Prozac show
that just increasing the concentration of serotonin in synapses can have significant effects on mood. I’ve just today been to a memorial service for Professor Robert Hinde, one of the fathers of animal behaviour who was a fellow at St John’s and died at the age of 93 just before Christmas. Robert linked an understanding of
animal behaviour from great tits to gorillas to studies of human behaviour with results that would revolutionise our concepts of mother-child interactions, to give but one example. In the 1950s, work on monkeys in the States had shown features of mother-infant interactions in some controversial experiments investigating
what happened when you separated mothers from their young in those primate groups. How could you ethically duplicate such work in humans? Robert realised that this was exactly what happened at the beginning of the nursery school term, so in the class where my children had their first educational experiences here in Histon,
Robert sat in a corner and watched in those tense moments when the child was first left by its mother. He noted that just the same
behavioural changes happened in the offspring – and their parents
– as happened when you forced a separation between monkey mothers and their offspring. We really aren’t that different after all. So Robert would probably agree that studies of anxious rats
can be extrapolated to give some understanding of human mental
health. Quite what that has to say about how I can help my veterinary students is not clear to me. Maybe I should be feeding them up with halibut, spinach, calf ’s liver and avocado, all apparently rich in tryptophan, before their exams. But perhaps a stomach upset would just compound their revision worries!