The Antidote

Counterspin for Health Care and Health News

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Jet lag: science, maybe... but still mice

Today's Washington Post health section features an article that describes - sort of - a research paper on jet lag in mice. The study found that a majority (53%) of elderly mice died (compared to 17% of control mice) after being subjected to a simulated Washington-to-Paris flight; the simulation was done by tweaking light exposure. The rest of the article consists of a non-scientific discussion of how lousy jet lag feels, along with anecdotes from frequent flyers, suggestions of how to prevent jet lag, and a little bit of speculation about effects of light changes on biological clocks.

What I liked: the article puts the new research into context regarding jet lag, some information on its biological effects, and other human studies on (possibly) related effects of shift work. What I didn't like: Extrapolation from humans to mice, and back again. What evidence is there that humans and mice might react the same way to jet lag? Lack of important details on the scientific article - what else did the study measure besides death, which might actually improve our understanding of the biology involved? One of the strengths of animal studies is the opportunity to collect detailed information on brain and other organ function, hormone fluctuations, etc. Finally, aren't there other aspects of airplane flight besides light exposure that could affect health? Dehydration, for example?

An earlier article I found from HealthDay news service via Gannett and USAToday focuses a bit more on the research, and cites some jet-lag research in humans. The writer gives the study's author the last word:
For now, Block isn't recommending that anyone stop traveling. But, the findings should make people more alert to "the fact that time-zone changes can be stressful" and require proper rest and recovery, he said.
Once again, extrapolating back to humans. And while this one is innocuous and qualified enough, why does every bit of research reported in the media have to include a health recommendation? I'd think it would be just as compelling to describe in more detail how the mice experienced jet lag - did they travel first class? drink red wine from plastic cups? have a choice of peanuts over pretzels? And were they told ahead of time that they weren't actually flying to Paris, that it was just a simulation? I'm just saying.

Bottom line: If you want to write about jet lag, please do, but this study isn't mice isn't ready for prime time and in my mind doesn't do much to advance our understanding, at least for readers outside the field.

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