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Say awwwwwwww: Here’s how to publicize rodent research accurately and adorably

Say awwwwwwww: Here’s how to publicize rodent research accurately and adorably

rodent research

Each week, the staff at HealthNewsReview.org collectively spends hours scanning news releases and news stories, assessing them for accuracy and importance to the general public.

Our faithful readers know we often gnaw away at headlines involving rodent research. As we’ve said time and again, when it comes to medical studies involving mice and other critters, what happens to them won’t necessarily happen to us–and it’s vital that news releases make that point emphatically. But they often don’t, as we noted in these reviews of news releases:

Release touts “new treatments to thwart colon cancer” — but buries that study subjects were mice
Overly enthusiastic PR release claims breast cancer prevention is “within reach” based on animal, cell culture studies
Release on bile acids as a heart treatment wrongly equates success in mice with human outcomes

In all these cases, you had to read deep into the news releases to discover the research is on rodents–not people. To us, that’s inexcusable, because it encourages journalists to do the same, leaving the general public poorly informed.

This week, though, a cute tweet and news release from Emory University involving rodent research Wednesday had me dropping my acorn–yet for all the right reasons. Take a look, and I’ll wait as you let out an awwwwwwww:

#Emory researchers closer to cracking neural code of love, with the help of smitten prairie voles https://t.co/x1X8VKKOkD pic.twitter.com/K1DGDOjCmd

— Emory University (@EmoryUniversity) June 1, 2017

The image and the tweet make it screamingly clear: This isn’t about humans. It’s about rodents. Romantic, possibly robotic, rodents.

I have a feeling if more PR teams were that upfront–and clever–about their preclinical animal research, we’d see better news coverage as a result. It’s going to be real hard for a journalist to skim that news release and ignore who the study subjects are.

Curious to know how they came up with the idea, I contacted staff at Emory University to find out. I was pleasantly surprised at how thoughtful the process was.

“This is about bonding, so I thought to have the circuits look like hearts, not too much because these voles are not in love, but bonding does share similarities to love, so the circuits are rudimentary hearts but recognizable,” said Larry Young, Emory University’s Director of the Silvio O. Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition, via email. “We are studying in this paper neural circuitry of bonding caused by mating.  The node of some of the circuits are emitting light, representing the laser light stimulation used in the optogenetics.”

And, well, about those cute cuddling voles, he said they wanted them to “look as they may be mating, and enjoying it, but not be obviously mating. More suggestive.”

It’s a terrific lure–and it appears to have worked. Take a peek at these headlines–which all use “vole” in the headline, a pleasing fact for us:

The Guardian: Vole love helps scientists pinpoint romantic brain activity
Newsweek: What happens when you fall in love? Researchers see brain changes in smitten prairie voles
News Scientist: Brain switch in voles makes them fall in love at first sight
(and last but not least) Gizmodo: Why Prairie Voles Cuddle The Shit Out Of Their Partners

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Updated: June 5, 2017 — 8:30 pm

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