Chapter 8. General Principles of Sensory Processing, Touch, and Pain
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Dr. Perri Klass First of all, nobody takes a small child on an airplane for the fun of it. I have been there and I know. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no airplane saint; you won’t generally catch me offering to hold someone else’s kid, or making friends around the seatback. I don’t usually admit to being a pediatrician, for fear of hearing a medical saga. But I have put in my time on airplanes with my own infants and toddlers and small children, and I certainly know how it feels. Probably the best thing that can be said for traveling with young children is that it teaches you to appreciate traveling without them, however puzzling the inflight announcements, however long the delays, however tightly spaced the seats. I did enough economy-class traveling with children while my own were young that my reflexive reaction to all flight cancellations, turbulence or the moment when the person in front of me reclines the seat very suddenly, knocking my laptop closed, is now: At least I don’t have a small child with me – thank heavens. Babies do not cry on airplanes for the fun of it either. Nor do they cry, by and large, to let you know that their parents are neglectful or callous. They cry for infant versions of the same reasons that adults snap at one another about reclining seats, or elbow each other with quiet savagery over the armrest. They cry because their ears hurt and they’re being made to stay in a certain position when they don’t want to or the air smells strange and the noises are loud, or their stomachs feel upset or the day has been too long and they still aren’t there yet or they’re just plain cranky. As are we all. Crying is an evolutionary strategy to summon adult aid; over millennia, crying has probably evolved to be hard to ignore. I don’t know if it’s any comfort, but when you’re the parent with the crying baby, it doesn’t particularly help to be an expert. “I remember one flight where my daughter screamed the whole way and kept trying to get out of her seatbelt,” said my old friend, Dr. Elizabeth Barnett, a professor of pediatrics at Boston University and a travel medicine specialist. “As a parent, you feel two things — you’re in distress because you’re trying to comfort your child and not succeeding, so you feel bad for your child, and you also feel guilty because you know your child is disturbing everybody else.” © 2016 The New York Times Company
By JOANNA KLEIN Misconception: Migraines are psychological manifestations of women’s inability to manage stress and emotions Actually: Neurologists are very clear that migraines are a real, debilitating medical condition related to temporary abnormal brain activity. The fact that they may be more common for some women during “that time of the month” has nothing to do with emotions. For centuries, doctors explained migraines as a woman’s problem caused by emotional disturbances like hysteria, depression or stress. “Bizarrely, the recommended cure was marriage!” said Dr. Anne MacGregor, the lead author of the British Association for the Study of Headache’s guidelines for diagnosing and managing migraines. While that prescription may be far behind us, the misconception that migraines are fueled by a woman’s inability to cope persists. “It was considered psychological, or that I was a nervous overachiever, so I would never tell people that I have them,” said Lorie Novak, an artist in her sixties who has suffered from migraines since she was 8. After reading Joan Didion’s 1968 essay “In Bed,” about the writer’s struggle with migraines, Ms. Novak decided to tackle the representation of these debilitating headaches. Starting in 2009, Ms. Novak photographed herself every time she got a migraine. Under the hashtag #notjustaheadache, hundreds of others on Twitter and Instagram have demonstrated their own frustration with a widespread lack of understanding of the reality of migraines. © 2016 The New York Times Company
By Sandhya Somashekhar African Americans are routinely under-treated for their pain compared with whites, according to research. A study released Monday sheds some disturbing light on why that might be the case. Researchers at the University of Virginia quizzed white medical students and residents to see how many believed inaccurate and at times "fantastical" differences about the two races -- for example, that blacks have less sensitive nerve endings than whites or that black people's blood coagulates more quickly. They found that fully half thought at least one of the false statements presented was possibly, probably or definitely true. Moreover, those who held false beliefs often rated black patients' pain as lower than that of white patients and made less appropriate recommendations about how they should be treated. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could help illuminate one of the most vexing problems in pain treatment today: That whites are more likely than blacks to be prescribed strong pain medications for equivalent ailments. A 2000 study out of Emory University found that at a hospital emergency department in Atlanta, 74 percent of white patients with bone fractures received painkillers compared with 50 percent of black patients. Similarly, a paper last year found that black children with appendicitis were less likely to receive pain medication than their white counterparts. And a 2007 study found that physicians were more likely to underestimate the pain of black patients compared with other patients.
By C. CLAIBORNE RAY Q. Why do we become desensitized to a perfume we are wearing while others can still smell it? A. Ceasing to smell one’s perfume after continuous exposure while casual passers-by can still smell it is just one example of a phenomenon called olfactory adaptation or odor fatigue. After some time without exposure, sensitivity is usually restored. A similar weakening of odor signals with continued exposure also takes place in animals other than humans, and researchers often rely on animal studies to try to understand the cellular and molecular bases for the condition. It has been suggested that odor fatigue is useful because it enables animals to sort out the signals of a new odor from the background noise of continuous odors. It may also enable them to sense when an odor grows stronger. Studies published in the journal Science in 2002 pinpointed a chemical that seems to act as a gatekeeper for neurons involved in smell, opening and closing their electric signal channels. Genetically engineered mice that did not produce the substance, a protein called CNGA4, had profoundly impaired olfactory adaptation. A separate test-tube study found similar changes on a cellular level, with the signal channels remaining open when CNGA4 was absent. firstname.lastname@example.org © 2016 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 22042 - Posted: 03.29.2016
By Roni Caryn Rabin Sixty-five million Americans suffer from chronic lower back pain, and many feel they have tried it all: physical therapy, painkillers, shots. Now a new study reports many people may find relief with a form of meditation that harnesses the power of the mind to manage pain. The technique, called mindfulness-based stress reduction, involves a combination of meditation, body awareness and yoga, and focuses on increasing awareness and acceptance of one’s experiences, whether they involve physical discomfort or emotional pain. People with lower back pain who learned the meditation technique showed greater improvements in function compared to those who had cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been shown to help ease pain, or standard back care. Participants assigned to meditation or cognitive behavior therapy received eight weekly two-hour sessions of group training in the techniques. After six months, those learning meditation had an easier time doing things like getting up out of a chair, going up the stairs and putting on their socks, and were less irritable and less likely to stay at home or in bed because of pain. They were still doing better a year later. The findings come amid growing concerns about opioid painkillers and a surge of overdose deaths involving the drugs. At the beginning of the trial, 11 percent of the participants said they had used an opioid within the last week to treat their pain, and they were allowed to continue with their usual care throughout the trial. “This new study is exciting, because here’s a technique that doesn’t involve taking any pharmaceutical agents, and doesn’t involve the side effects of pharmaceutical agents,” said Dr. Madhav Goyal of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, who co-wrote an editorial accompanying the paper. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Results from a new study, funded in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, demonstrate that mindfulness meditation works on a different pain pathway in the brain than opioid pain relievers. The researchers noted that because opioid and non-opioid mechanisms of pain relief interact synergistically, the results of this study suggest that combining mindfulness-based and pharmacologic/nonpharmacologic pain-relieving approaches that rely on opioid signaling may be particularly effective in treating pain. Previous research has shown that mindfulness meditation helps relieve pain, but researchers have been unclear about how the practice induces pain relief — specifically, if meditation is associated with the release of naturally occurring opiates. Researchers recorded pain reports in 78 healthy adults during meditation or a non-meditation control in response to painful heat stimuli and intravenous administration of the opioid antagonist naloxone (a drug that blocks the transmission of opioid activity) or placebo saline. Participants were randomized to one of four treatment groups: 1) meditation plus naloxone; 2) control plus naloxone; 3) meditation plus saline; or 4) control plus saline. People in the control groups were instructed to “close your eyes and relax until the end of the experiment.” The researchers found that participants who meditated during saline administration had significantly lower pain intensity and unpleasantness ratings compared to those who did not meditate while receiving saline. Importantly, data from the meditation plus naloxone group showed that naloxone did not block meditation’s pain-relieving effects. No significant differences in reductions of pain intensity or pain unpleasantness were seen between the meditation plus naloxone and the meditation plus saline groups. Participants who meditated during naloxone administration also had significantly greater reductions in pain intensity and unpleasantness than the control groups.
Keyword: Pain & Touch
Link ID: 22006 - Posted: 03.19.2016
BRAINS get data about the world through senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. In a lab in North Carolina, a group of rats is getting an extra one. Thanks to implants in their brains, they have learned to sense and react to infrared light. The rats show the brain’s ability to process unfamiliar data– an early step towards augmenting the human brain. Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University School of Medicine is leading the experiment. His team implanted four clusters of electrodes in the rats’ barrel cortex – the part of the brain that handles whisker sensation (doi.org/bdb6). Each cluster is connected to a sensor that converts infrared light into an electrical signal. Feeding stations placed at the four corners of the rats’ cage take turns emitting infrared signals that guide the rats to them, releasing a reward only when the rats press a button on the feeding station that is emiting the infrared signal. In an older, single sensor version of the experiment, it took the rats one month to adapt. With four sensors, it took them just three days. “This is a truly remarkable demonstration of the plasticity of the mammalian brain,” says Christopher James of the University of Warwick, UK. All the extra data that goes into making the rats’ new sense doesn’t appear to diminish their original senses. “The results show that nature has apparently designed the adult mammalian brain with the possibility of upgrades, and Nicolelis’ team is leading the way showing how to do it,” says Andrea Stocco of the University of Washington in Seattle. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
The CDC recommends non-opioid therapy, including exercise and over-the-counter pain medications, as the preferred treatment for chronic pain. It says opioids should only be prescribed — at the lowest effective dosage possible — when the benefits from pain reduction and bodily function outweigh the risks. In 2014, American doctors wrote nearly 200 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers, while deaths linked to the drugs climbed to roughly 19,000 — the highest number on record. The number of Canadians who die every year from opioids is not readily known — the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse does not track the statistics — but Toronto physician Nav Persaud told CBC News in 2014 that more than 1,000 Canadians die from painkillers every year. A 2012 study says one in eight deaths among young adults age 25 to 34 in Ontario and one out of every 170 deaths in the province as a whole are opioid overdoses. One in four people who entered a withdrawal management program at St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont., were opioid patients in 2012, up from one in ten in 2002. Other studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of opioids on chronic pain, raising questions on whether its limited long-term effects are worth the harmful risks. "The science is clear," CDC director Tom Frieden said Tuesday. "For the vast majority of patients, the known and often fatal risks [of opioids] far outweigh the proven and transient benefits." ©2016 CBC/Radio-Canada.
By Sandra G. Boodman Kim Pace was afraid he was dying. In six months he had lost more than 30 pounds because a terrible stabbing sensation on the left side of his face made eating or drinking too painful. Brushing his teeth was out of the question and even the slightest touch triggered waves of agony and a shocklike pain he imagined was comparable to electrocution. Painkillers, even morphine, brought little relief. Unable to work and on medical leave from his job as a financial consultant for a bank, Pace, then 59, had spent the first half of 2012 bouncing among specialists in his home state of Pennsylvania, searching for help from doctors who disagreed about the nature of his illness. Some thought his searing pain might be the side effect of a drug he was taking. Others suspected migraines, a dental problem, mental illness, or an attempt to obtain painkillers. Even after a junior doctor made what turned out to be the correct diagnosis, there was disagreement among specialists about its accuracy or how to treat Pace. His wife, Carol, a nurse, said she suspects that the couple’s persistence and propensity to ask questions led her husband to be branded “a difficult case” — the kind of patient whom some doctors avoid. And on top of that, a serious but entirely unrelated disorder further muddied the diagnostic picture. So on July 17, 2012, when Pace told his wife he thought he was dying, she fired off an emotional plea for help to the office of a prominent specialist in Baltimore. “I looked at Kim and it hit me: He was going to die,” she said. “He was losing weight and his color was ashen” and doctors were “blowing him off. I thought, ‘Okay, that’s it,’ and the nurse in me took over.”
Cathleen O'Grady When we speak, listen, read, or write, almost all of the language processing that happens in our brains goes on below the level of conscious awareness. We might be aware of grasping for a particular forgotten word, but we don’t actively think about linguistic concepts like morphemes (the building blocks of words, like the past tense morpheme “-ed”). Psycholinguists try to delve under the surface to figure out what’s actually going on in the brain, and how well this matches up with our theoretical ideas of how languages fit together. For instance, linguists talk about morphemes like “-ed”, but do our brains actually work with morphemes when we’re producing or interpreting language? That is, do theoretical linguistic concepts have any psychological reality? An upcoming paper in the journal Cognition suggests an unusual way to investigate this: by testing synaesthetes. Synaesthesia comes in many forms. Some synaesthetes associate musical tones or notes with particular colours; others attach personalities to letters or numbers. A huge number of synaesthetes have associations that are in some way linguistic, and one of the most common forms of all is grapheme-colour (GC) synaesthesia, which is the association of colours with particular letters or numbers. For instance, a GC synaesthete might have a consistent perception of the letter “A” being red. This association often extends to a whole word, so “ant” might be red, too. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Link ID: 21937 - Posted: 02.27.2016
Jo Marchant The brain cells of people with Parkinson’s disease can be trained to reliably respond to placebo drugs, Italian neuroscientists report. The training wears off after 24 hours but the effect shows it may be possible to reduce the medication needed to treat Parkinson’s by interspersing real drugs with inert injections or pills, says placebo researcher Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin, Italy, who led the work. A few people with Parkinson’s disease do respond dramatically to placebos, but most do not1. People with the condition suffer characteristic tremors and stiff muscles because their dopamine-producing brain cells are gradually dying off. They alleviate their symptoms by taking drugs such as apomorphine, which activate receptors for dopamine. For some conditions — such as pain and immune disorders — trials have shown2 that it is possible to train people to respond to placebos, although this practice hasn’t made its way into clinical care. Benedetti and his colleagues wondered whether the same effect might be possible for neurological disorders. They studied 42 people with advanced Parkinson’s disease who were having electrodes implanted into their brains for a therapy called deep brain stimulation, which eases symptoms by stimulating affected brain areas directly. That surgery gave Benedetti’s team a rare opportunity to measure the activity of individual neurons in the thalamus, a brain region known to be inhibited by lack of dopamine in people with Parkinson's. © 2016 Nature Publishing Grou
Link ID: 21884 - Posted: 02.10.2016
Rare ‘allergy’ to vibrations tied to faulty gene By Kelly Servick If you have the rare condition known as vibratory urticaria, you may be wary of handling lawnmowers and electric mixers. Rubbing or vibration against your skin—even from drying off with a towel—can cause you to break out in hives, make your face flush, give you headaches, or produce the sensation of a metallic taste. The condition, which runs in families, is so rare that the researchers who work on it have only tracked down a few cases over years of searching. But a genetic study on three such unique families has revealed a potential mechanism for the strange symptoms. Research published online today in the New England Journal of Medicine describes a mutation in a gene called ADGRE2, found in 22 people with vibratory urticaria, but not in 14 of their unaffected relatives. The gene codes for a receptor protein that was found on the surface of mast cells—immune cells in the skin that dump out inflammatory molecules such as histamines that increase blood flow to an area and can cause hives. The researchers observed that shaking mast cells in a dish breaks apart two subunits of this receptor protein, which prompts histamine release. In people with the newly discovered mutation, the receptor is more prone to breakage, which causes this protective immune response at the site of physical trauma to run amok. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
A map for other people’s faces has been discovered in the brain. It could help explain why some of us are better at recognising faces than others. Every part of your body that you can move or feel is represented in the outer layer of your brain. These “maps”, found in the motor and sensory cortices (see diagram, below), tend to preserve the basic spatial layout of the body – neurons that represent our fingers are closer to neurons that represent our arms than our feet, for example. The same goes for other people’s faces, says Linda Henriksson at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland. Her team scanned 12 people’s brains while they looked at hundreds of images of noses, eyes, mouths and other facial features and recorded which bits of the brain became active. This revealed a region in the occipital face area in which features that are next to each other on a real face are organised together in the brain’s representation of that face. The team have called this map the “faciotopy”. The occipital face area is a region of the brain known to be involved in general facial processing. “Facial recognition is so fundamental to human behaviour that it makes sense that there would be a specialised area of the brain that maps features of the face,” she says. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Laura Sanders Pain can sear memories into the brain, a new study finds. A full year after viewing a picture of a random, neutral object, people could remember it better if they had been feeling painful heat when they first saw it. “The results are fun, they are interesting and they are provocative,” says neuroscientist A. Vania Apkarian of Northwestern University in Chicago. The findings “speak to the idea that pain really engages memory.” Neuroscientists G. Elliott Wimmer and Christian Büchel of University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany reported the results in a paper online at BioRxiv.org first posted December 24 and revised January 6. The findings are under review at a journal, and Wimmer declined to comment on the study until it is accepted for publication. Wimmer and Büchel recruited 31 brave souls who agreed to feel pain delivered by a heat-delivering thermode on their left forearms. Each person’s pain sensitivity was used to calibrate the amount of heat they received in the experiment, which was either not painful (a 2 on an 8-point scale) or the highest a person could endure multiple times (a full 8). While undergoing a functional MRI scan, participants looked at a series of pictures of unremarkable household objects, such as a camera, sometimes feeling pain and sometimes not. Right after seeing the images, the people took a pop quiz in which they answered whether an object was familiar. Pain didn’t influence memory right away. Right after their ordeal, participants remembered about three-quarters of the previously seen objects, regardless of whether pain was present, the researchers found. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.
Pete Etchells Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, is a curious phenomenon. Those who experience it often characterise it as a tingling sensation in the back of the head or neck, or another part of the body, in response to some sort of sensory stimulus. That stimulus could be anything, but over the past few years, a subculture has developed around YouTube videos, and their growing popularity was the focus of a video posted on the Guardian this last week. It’s well worth a watch, but I couldn’t help but feel it would have been a bit more interesting if there had been some scientific background in it. The trouble is, there isn’t actually much research on ASMR out there. To date, only one research paper has been published on the phenomenon. In March last year, Emma Barratt, a graduate student at Swansea University, and Dr Nick Davis, then a lecturer at the same institution, published the results of a survey of some 500 ASMR enthusiasts. “ASMR is interesting to me as a psychologist because it’s a bit ‘weird’” says Davis, now at Manchester Metropolitan University. “The sensations people describe are quite hard to describe, and that’s odd because people are usually quite good at describing bodily sensation. So we wanted to know if everybody’s ASMR experience is the same, and of people tend to be triggered by the same sorts of things.” The study asked a range of questions about where, when and why people watch ASMR videos, whether there was any consistency in ASMR-triggering content, as well as whether individuals felt it had any effect on their mood. There was a remarkable consistency across participants in terms of triggering content – whispering worked for the majority of people, followed by videos involving some sort of personal attention, crisp sounds, and slow movements. For the most part, participants reported that they watched ASMR videos for relaxation purposes, or to help them sleep or deal with stress. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
Keyword: Pain & Touch
Link ID: 21767 - Posted: 01.09.2016
By Emily Underwood As long as she can remember, 53-year-old Rosa Sundquist has tallied the number of days per month when her head explodes with pain. The migraines started in childhood and have gotten worse as she’s grown older. Since 2008, they have incapacitated her at least 15 days per month, year-round. Head-splitting pain isn’t the worst of Sundquist’s symptoms. Nausea, vomiting, and an intense sensitivity to light, sound, and smell make it impossible for her to work—she used to be an office manager—or often even to leave her light-proofed home in Dumfries, Virginia. On the rare occasions when she does go out to dinner or a movie with her husband and two college-aged children, she wears sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones. A short trip to the grocery store can turn into a full-blown attack “on a dime,” she says. Every 10 weeks, Sundquist gets 32 bee sting–like injections of the nerve-numbing botulism toxin into her face and neck. She also visits a neurologist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who gives her a continuous intravenous infusion of the anesthetic lidocaine over 7 days. The lidocaine makes Sundquist hallucinate, but it can reduce her attacks, she says—she recently counted 20 migraine days per month instead of 30. Sundquist can also sometimes ward off an attack with triptans, the only drugs specifically designed to interrupt migraines after they start. Millions of others similarly dread the onset of a migraine, although many are not afflicted as severely as Sundquist. Worldwide, migraines strike roughly 12% of people at least once per year, with women roughly three times as likely as men to have an attack. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By Stephani Sutherland A technique called optogenetics has transformed neuroscience during the past 10 years by allowing researchers to turn specific neurons on and off in experimental animals. By flipping these neural switches, it has provided clues about which brain pathways are involved in diseases like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Optogenetics is not just a flash in the pan,” says neuroscientist Robert Gereau of Washington University in Saint Louis. “It allows us to do experiments that were not doable before. This is a true game changer like few other techniques in science.” Since the first papers were published on optogenetics in the mid-aughts some researchers have mused about one day using optogenetics in patients, imagining the possibility of an off-switch for depression, for instance. The technique, however, would require that a patient submit to a set of highly invasive medical procedures: genetic engineering of neurons to insert molecular switches to activate or switch off cells, along with threading of an optical fiber into the brain to flip those switches. Spurred on by a set of technical advances, optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth, together with other Stanford University researchers, has formed a company to pursue optogenetics trials in patients within the next several years—one of several start-ups that are now contemplating clinical trials of the technique. Circuit Therapeutics, founded in 2010, is moving forward with specific plans to treat neurological diseases. (It also partners with pharmaceutical companies to help them use optogenetics in animal research to develop novel drug targets for human diseases.) © 2016 Scientific America
Keyword: Pain & Touch
Link ID: 21758 - Posted: 01.07.2016
A woman born incapable of feeling pain has been hurt for the first time – thanks to a drug normally prescribed for opioid overdoses. She was burned with a laser, and quite liked the experience. The breakthrough may lead to powerful new ways to treat painful conditions such as arthritis. Only a handful people around the world are born unable to feel pain. These individuals can often suffer a range of injuries when they are young. Babies with the condition tend to chew their fingers, toes and lips until they bleed, and toddlers can suffer an increased range of knocks, tumbles and encounters with sharp or hot objects. The disorder is caused by a rare genetic mutation that results in a lack of ion channels that transport sodium across sensory nerves. Without these channels, known as Nav1.7 channels, nerve cells are unable to communicate pain. Researchers quickly sought to make compounds that blocked Nav1.7 channels, thinking they might be able to block pain in people without the disorder. “It looked like a fantastic drug target,” says John Wood at University College London. “Pharma companies went bananas and made lots of drugs.” But while a few compounds saw some success, none brought about the total pain loss seen in people who lack the channel naturally. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By David Noonan The 63-year-old chief executive couldn't do his job. He had been crippled by migraine headaches throughout his adult life and was in the middle of a new string of attacks. “I have but a little moment in the morning in which I can either read, write or think,” he wrote to a friend. After that, he had to shut himself up in a dark room until night. So President Thomas Jefferson, in the early spring of 1807, during his second term in office, was incapacitated every afternoon by the most common neurological disability in the world. The co-author of the Declaration of Independence never vanquished what he called his “periodical head-ach,” although his attacks appear to have lessened after 1808. Two centuries later 36 million American migraine sufferers grapple with the pain the president felt. Like Jefferson, who often treated himself with a concoction brewed from tree bark that contained quinine, they try different therapies, ranging from heart drugs to yoga to herbal remedies. Their quest goes on because modern medicine, repeatedly baffled in attempts to find the cause of migraine, has struggled to provide reliable relief. Now a new chapter in the long and often curious history of migraine is being written. Neurologists believe they have identified a hypersensitive nerve system that triggers the pain and are in the final stages of testing medicines that soothe its overly active cells. These are the first ever drugs specifically designed to prevent the crippling headaches before they start, and they could be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration next year. If they deliver on the promise they have shown in studies conducted so far, which have involved around 1,300 patients, millions of headaches may never happen. © 2015 Scientific American
Keyword: Pain & Touch
Link ID: 21662 - Posted: 11.28.2015
By Nala Rogers If you travel with a group of friends, you might delegate navigation to the person with the best sense of direction. But among homing pigeons, the leader is whoever flies the fastest—even if that pigeon has to pick up navigation skills on the job, according to a new study. To find out how the skills of individual pigeons influence flock direction, researchers tested four flocks on journeys from three different locations, each about 5 kilometers from their home loft near Oxford, U.K. At each site, the researchers tracked the pigeons during solo flights before releasing them together for several group journeys. The fastest birds surged to the front during group flights and determined when the flock turned, despite the fact that these leaders were often poor navigators during their initial solo expeditions. But on a final set of solo flights—made after the group journeys—these same leaders chose straighter routes than followers, the researchers report today in Current Biology. Apparently, being responsible for group decisions helped pigeons learn the route, say scientists, raising questions about the two-way interplay between skills and leadership. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science