Reprinted with permission of Neil Harrington
A team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, has announced findings which indicate that a particular area in the human brain may be responsible for the rare and bizarre behavioral syndrome characterized by "Meowchatting". The findings, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, also conclude that there may be a genetic basis for this condition. Said Dr. Linda Pica, the physiologist who headed the Berkeley research team, "We knew there was something funny about these people... we had to find out what was going on."
Pica's research team used positron emission tomography (PET scans) to study metabolic activity in the brains of 500 people and 700 felines across the United States. The group of humans was equally divided into persons known to have Meowchat Syndrome and another group consisting of "normal people".
They found that the area of the brain deep within the hypothalamus called the pleasure center is significantly larger in persons with Meowchat Syndrome. "The results were striking," said Pica. "The pleasure center was approximately 15 percent larger in those with Meowchat." They then compared metabolic activity in the brains of those in the Meowchat group with the brains of domestic cats. "We set up a computer terminal in the PET scan to analyze the brains of Meowchatters while they were actively chatting. Then we compared the results with PET scans of purring domestic felines. Activity in the pleasure centers of the cats and humans was virtually identical," said Pica. "This kind of study has never been done before. This is new. We're really excited."
Pica believes that the increased metabolic rate in the Meowchatters is due to a specific group of neurotransmitters called catecholamines. "Dopamine probably," Said Pica. "After we find out what actually causes this (syndrome), we'll get down to looking at why. I believe we'll eventually find that this is genetically based."
The ethical considerations raised by this research made themselves known only hours after release of the findings. Groups of protesters gathered outside Pica's office shortly after the findings became public. Some apparently fear that the discovery of a genetic link to Meowchat Syndrome may lead to new gene therapies to eliminate the condition. "They'll suck the cat out my baby's head!" screamed one protester.
Another camp of protestors gathered to express their concerns that the discovery may lead to new "designer genes" which could be inserted into human embryos to create the condition. Fighting erupted among the two camps by early evening, and the groups were dispersed by local police. Pica said later that she witnessed the scene from her office window. "It was quite a hissy fit," she said. "U shud haf seen the fur fly."
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