Scientists study red-nosed reindeer, Rudolph

 Ho ho ho, here's some Christmas-themed science!

The British Medical Journal's Christmas issue this month features a study about reindeer that treats a fantastical idea with some medical reality. The result is a lesson in how reindeer noses compare to the noses of humans and what purpose their underlying structures serve.

Can Ince, a professor who works in intensive care medicine at Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, studies microcirculation, or how the smallest blood vessels in the body receive blood. Red blood cells go to these vessels to relieve themselves of oxygen, delivering it to the tissues that need it.

Ince and colleagues developed a hand microscope so that doctors can look for abnormalities and pathologies in the smallest blood vessels, even when blood pressure is normalized. This has had a great influence on intensive care medicine, Ince said.

Particularly interesting to Ince was how this might apply to the nasal tract and, more generally, to ear, nose and throat diseases.

"We decided to study the best known nose in the business, which was, of course, Rudolph's nose," Ince said.

The new study looked at both humans and reindeer. Five healthy human volunteers, two adult reindeer, and a patient with a condition called nasal polyposis participated. The researchers saw that the patients with nasal polyposis had abnormal microvasculature, or blood vessels in their noses.

To check out the reindeer noses, Ince traveled to Tromso, Norway, where researchers there study how reindeer and other animals adapt to their environment. It is indeed relatively near the North Pole; in fact, the University of Tromso, where one of the researchers is based, is the world's northernmost university, according to its website.

These reindeer are subjected to some fairly frosty temperatures in the wild, as low as around -40 degrees F. But they still need a way to cool off vital organs. Researchers put reindeer on a treadmill to see what happens to their internal temperature when they're running.

The nose of the reindeer plays an important role in regulating the animal's brain temperature, Ince said. The nose ventilates the brain with the blood in the microcirculation, Ince said.

In the new study, researchers saw that when viewed in infrared light (with a thermal camera), reindeer noses do glow red. And in normal light, reindeer can have a pink coloration on their noses.

"We found that Rudolph, indeed, has a red nose, but that it is completely related to his normal physiology," Ince said.

The blood vessels in the reindeer appear to fill and empty in a rhythmic flow, which had never been observed before, Ince said. He believes the images in the study are the first of nasal microcirculation in reindeer.

Reindeer have more small vessels, and 25% higher density of these vessels, in their noses than humans do, the scientists said. But they seem to have similarities in terms of small structures within the nose.

These structures that produce a lot of the mucus in the nose are important because they help with the humidification of our bodies. If our noses didn't have hairs, we would dry out very rapidly, Ince said.

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