People who suffer catastrophic brain injury can recover their social skills faster by stroking guinea pigs, research suggests.
Traumatic brain injury often influences a patient’s ability to feel empathy and to express his emotions.
But a study found that patients ‘cute animals’ – such as micro pigs, rabbits, and donkeys – nearly doubled their talkative and positive during rehabilitation sessions.
Researchers believe that those who have difficulty communicating, fighting shame or feeling judged by others benefit from the “non-evaluative” nature of our furry friends.
People with traumatic brain injury can recover faster by stroking guinea pigs (stock)
The research was conducted by the University of Basel in Switzerland and led by psychotherapist Dr. Karin Hediger.
“The results suggest that animal-supported therapy [AAT] can have a positive effect on the social behavior of patients with brain injuries, “she said.
‘Animals can be relevant therapeutic partners because they motivate patients to care for the animal.
“Secondly, animals provide an incentive for patients to actively participate in therapeutic activities.”
Traumatic brain injury affects between 50 and 60 million people worldwide every year, the researchers wrote in the journal Scientific Reports.
This often leads to ‘difficulties in social competence’, including less chatting or asking more direct questions.
Olympic gold medalist and rowing champion James Cracknell called himself “James Mark Two” after a bicycle accident in July 2010 left him with a changed personality.
Cracknell claims that his serious head injury made him from “surfer-like” and “relaxed” to aggressive and irritable.
AAT is increasingly being used to tackle ‘reduced social competence’ in people with a brain injury.
However, up to now, the effectiveness in these patients has not been specifically investigated.
To test this, the researchers recorded the behavior of 19 patients who participated in both AAT and conventional therapy at REHAB Basel, the clinic for neuro-rehabilitation and paraplegia.
Each patient underwent 12 AAT and 12 conventional therapy sessions for six weeks.
HOW DOES A BRAIN INJURY AFFECT THE IMAGE OF A PERSON?
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is thought to harm a patient’s imagination if they affect the part of the vital organ that regulates creativity.
Recent research suggests that both the left and right sides of the brain play a role in the imagination.
Although it is unclear exactly how this happens, it is thought that neurological damage of any kind – be it Alzheimer’s, TBI, multiple sclerosis or brain tumors – influences creativity by a person’s ability to interpret things that happen around him.
Loss of the imagination can occur if the occipital lobe, which is located in the lower, posterior part of the brain, is damaged.
Studies have also shown that people who tolerate TBI often lose the ability to dream or imagine past experiences, such as the appearance of loved ones or their parental home.
The animals were selected by the individual patient and their therapist, with the options horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, miniature pigs, cats, chickens, rabbits or guinea pigs.
During each AAT session, patients were asked to complete a task that involved the animal.
For example feeding guinea pigs, walking through a course with a mini pig or cleaning a rabbit cage with the rabbit present.
This was compared to cutting vegetables, but not feeding them to an animal, walking a course with a ball, and cleaning furniture.
Each session was recorded on video, with the researchers evaluating how patients communicated.
The patients also completed a questionnaire after each session, asking about their mood and motivation to attend therapy.
Results showed that when patients participated in AAT, their “verbal communication was considerably higher” and their “reactive verbal communication was reduced.”
And the ‘duration of the positive emotions shown’ was almost twice as long in the AAT sessions.
The AAT patients were also more likely to make eye contact with their therapist.
When the AAT was over, the patients assessed themselves as more motivated and satisfied, with which their therapists agreed.
“Motivation and state of mind are both essential for increased involvement and positive results in rehabilitation,” the authors wrote.
The animals did not influence the negative emotions of the patients – they did not get better or worse, but improved “neutral” emotions.
The researchers hope that their research will lead to AAT being used more in patients with head injuries.
However, they did notice that patients differed in how well they responded to AAT. Therefore, future research should investigate those who can benefit the most, the scientists add.