Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Reiki for Rats

Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious / Foter / CC BY-SA
My jumping off point for this post was Orac’s post about Reiki for rats (and to some extent this related post at Dr Aust's blog). The study in question is:

ResearchBlogging.orgReiki Improves Heart Rate Homeostasis in Laboratory Rats. Ann Linda Baldwin, Christina Wagers, Gary E. Schwartz. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. May 1, 2008, 14(4): 417-422. doi:10.1089/acm.2007.0753

But I am going to immediately jump back to a slightly earlier study in the same vein by the same first author, which is:

ResearchBlogging.orgPersonal Interaction with a Reiki Practitioner Decreases Noise-Induced Microvascular Damage in an Animal Model. Ann L. Baldwin, Gary E. Schwartz. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. January 1, 2006, 12(1): 15-22. doi:10.1089/acm.2006.12.15

I recently went to a talk on alternative medicine for pets where the speaker asked any skeptics in the room to raise their hand. Like any self-respecting scientist I am pretty skeptical about things so I (and only I) raised my hand. The speaker then illuminated for us all that some skeptics are simply debunkers, which made me feel very welcome indeed. But I will say that I am not a debunker, what I am is a great fan of parsimony and a person with an immense and abiding respect for rats. Not, I hasten to add, respecting rats as if they were little people, but because they are rats--and rats are some of the most successful, adaptable and sensitive animals on the planet.

So my skeptic node starts to twitch when I read that rats are employed in study to avoid "complications with attitude that are encountered when using human subjects". Because rats have a lot of attitude, and they have a lot of opinions about people. Rats coming straight out of rodent supply companies like the ones in the Reiki study tend to stereotype people as predators, but are touchingly quick to change their minds and treat humans as friends. They distinguish between people easily and a rat I have gentled (over a few days) will make an amicable ultrasound 'tick tick' call when I hold it, but be silent when held by a stranger. However they can also form rapid and lasting enmities for some people for reasons I couldn't always work out--I had one rat that would run a maze happily for one handler, but refuse to move for another. So while rats undoubtedly neither know about, nor have opinions about, Reiki--it is utterly inevitable that they will notice and have opinions about every person whose presence they detect. (Or as Orac wrote: "Of course, rats react to the presence of humans, and if the reiki masters were sufficiently soothing to the rats, that could have had an effect.")

These will tend to be strong feelings, specific to the person, and they will tend to change rapidly over time. This is why when a battery of tests is done on rats, the open field fear test is always done first. Because if you do it after running, for example, a three day maze test by the end of it the rats will be much more relaxed and have come to like you or at least get used to you, or at least associate your presence with food rewards, and so they just won't be very afraid any more. But I digress.

The initial Reiki study used four groups of 4 rats over a three week period
1) undisturbed rats
2) rats exposed to 15 minutes of 90bd noise daily
3) Reiki, then noise
4) sham Reiki, then noise.

I would note that the sham condition is described thusly: "The student imitated the physical movements of the Reiki practitioner" ... "The sham Reiki practitioners were asked not to think about the rats, whereas the Reiki practitioners focussed their full attention on the pair of rats to which they were sending Reiki". Thus the sham condition controlled mainly for the general positioning of an adult human being. Oh and interestingly the Reiki practitioners filled out a questionnaire that showed they was far more mentally and emotionally positive than the students were. (well, you know how undergraduates are).

Is this "a sham Reiki group [that] provided an excellent control"? It would say it is an adequate control only if all that rats react to is the presence of an adult human and their approximate posture. However this simply isn't the case. Take, for example, the 'maze bright' effect. Rats run through a maze by a handler who has been told their rats were bred to be ‘maze bright’ out-performed genetically identical animals whose handler was told their rats were ‘maze dull’ (Rosenthal & Lawson,1964)--even though all handlers followed a standardised protocol and aspired to collect scientifically valid data. This and a great many other studies show that rats and many other animals respond to our interest, emotional responses and expectations. This can be seen in anything from the caretaker effect (rats bias their position in a maze or other equipment to stay near a familiar handler, animals are more likely to die immediately after a change of caretaker) to the Clever Hans effect (animals can seem to perform complex arithmetic just by stopping their response when the handler unconscious relaxes at the correct answer). This type of effect is hardly unknown to science and is one of the key reasons behind double blind study design--yes, even with studies using rats.

You might object that most of these effects involve people who have touched and handled the animals. And yes, there is as far as I know a paucity of data relating to the effects of simple presence and movement in the animal's proximity. However I think the same principle applies due to the importance of the 'flight zone' in prey species. In my own experience with rats they respond very strongly to the way people move and smell, and to a lesser extent how they look. For example they seem to notice eye contact and they react poorly to jerky movements compared to smooth movements. In fact novice handler often have trouble imitating good caretaking movements at first which involve not the speed or breadth of how you move, so much as the manner. Temple Grandin gives some very good talks on this issue. But again, I digress.

Thus, is Reiki the only--or even the most plausible--explanation of the effects of the proximity of attentive humans prior to or during a stressful effect. I would say no. I would say the social buffering effects of sympathetic human presence is sufficient explanation. And in fact an appropriate control might just have been an matched age and temperament human who really likes rats but is confirmed to be a complete muggle with no Reiki powers. Or the Reiki practitioner focusing on the rats but with their powers 'off'. Or indeed as the researcher's mention: "Reiki given remotely, so that the practitioner does not have to enter the room." (Or whatever would work best for the putative way Reiki works. I admit to being very familiar indeed with how rats work but admitted fairly ignorant of Reiki but if it can be given remotely then that would be a nifty solution).

Which it is all the more confusing that the 2008 paper not only keeps the practitioners in the room, but also dispenses with a simultaneous design (albeit one without direct counterbalancing for position) for a sequential design where all animals experience first real and then sham Reiki over a much short time scale. Again I must agree with Orac, with this second study "Most importantly, though, there's no way of telling whether this is a period effect, or not." For example, the main thing happening with a commercial source rats in a quiet room is habituation--habituation both to the effect of noise and the effect of human presence could in itself cause the Reiki condition to be more effective.

I also note that in the second paper it appears that Reiki is not just given prior to noise exposure, but during--and not for the whole period but for half of it. Was this intended to be a within session control? Data related to this does not seem to be presented and I think perhaps it should have been? In fact on the whole I am not entirely clear in reference to which data heart rate is deemed to have decreased. It seems to me that with three subjects and eight experimental sessions each only 45 minutes long, we might just be shown the data.

Back in the old (behaviorist) days I think this would have been seen as a replicated case study design with potentially confounding time trends--thus visual analysis would be a must. A graph, that is, with hearty rate etc plotted over time and dotted vertical lines to see when Reiki or Sham reiki is being applied.

In my opinion, what the statistics in both studies indicated, albeit only in a general way and if one assumes the potential confounds had no great effect, was this. Rats are stressed by noise. Rats in the presence of a disinterested undergrads waving their hands experience a reduction in stress which was in many cases statistically significant. Rats in the presence of presumably older, mentally happier people who were paying them close attention and moving their hands in a very well practiced soothing way experience an even greater reduction in stress. Rats left alone in a quiet room are the least stressed of all.

Am I a debunking? I would say not. Despite some methodological flaws which are, for some reason, more severe in the more recent paper than the earlier paper, I find the experimental outcome plausible. I think the quite significant effect of human presence, type of human presence, and attitude and behavior of animal handlers on animals such as laboratory rats is very rarely fully taken into account--it deserves a great deal more attention. Clever Hans is often taught to undergrads as a lesson in how to debunk, not a demonstration of the immense sensitivity of some animals to the attitudes and so behavior or people--which is the very reason why rats are not the ideal way to do away with the problems of human attitude. After all, most of us have some innate understand of at least the gross aspects of human attitude and how to control for it in a medical trial--very few people have the slightest notion about rat attitude and temperament. I would also argue if the point of a study is to demonstrate the effect of Reiki in particular, the effect of human presence in general needs to be much better understood and controlled.

Take home message: rats don't just know that we are there, they know if we care. In the absence of evidence to the contrary it is reasonable to assume they come to know this approximately the same we we do, using their normal senses.

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