Into the Wild: A Scientific Approach

It's not as easy as popping Prozac, but it's definitely more fun: swimming with dolphins. But is it medicine? In a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers found that patients with mild to moderate depression who splashed around with dolphins reported greater improvements in their symptoms than a control group who swam and snorkeled on their own in a coral reef. Participants, all of whom went off their meds for the study in Honduras, got better after two weeks and there were no side effects (except, perhaps, the angst of donning a bathing suit). The dolphins had no comment.

Animal therapy isn't new. Greek soldiers put wounded comrades on their horses to help them heal. But as complementary medicine grows, some scientists are trying to put Mother Nature to the test in a more medically rigorous fashion. Older studies often relied on a single group; newer ones are randomizing patients and including control groups for comparison. During the past several years, researchers have published reports on a variety of remedies, from horseback riding for cerebral palsy (muscle symmetry improved) to fish tanks for Alzheimer's (patients appeared more relaxed and ate more).

Plants even have their own field of study: horticultural therapy. In a study published this fall, researchers at the New York University School of Medicine split just over 100 cardiac rehab patients into two groups. Both went to educational lectures, but one group also spent time in an NYU garden. Yes, they did better--their heart rates dropped significantly and their moods improved. Greenery reduces stress, says NYU horticultural therapist Matthew Wichrowski, and is "a complement to high-tech fixes."

Nature studies will always have a hard time living up to gold-standard research: they tend to be small (funding is hard to come by) and subject to serious bias--participants know what kind of treatment they're getting. And the therapies aren't necessarily practical (dolphins, anyone?) or long-lasting. Still, in this pill-happy era, it's hard to argue against a dose of Mother Nature.

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Into the Wild: A Scientific Approach | News