The Best Holiday-Themed Research You’ll Read Today

The British Medical Journal, while one of the oldest and most respected general medical journals, is not a traditional source for Christmas reading. However, tucked within its December 2012 issue is the peer-reviewed article “Why Rudolph’s Nose is Red: Observational Study”.  Written by a group of otolaryngologists (ears, nose, and throat doctors), this study is a great way to review key experimental design components and practice essential science literacy skills. It’s a great go-to for the last days before vacation or as a fun extra credit assignment over the holidays!

A Svalbard reindeer. Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The study tested the hypothesis that “the luminous red nose of Rudolph, one of the most well-known reindeer pulling Santa Claus’s sleigh, is due to the presence of a highly dense and rich nasal microcirculation.” To do this the researchers used a handheld video microscope to visualize microvascular structure, vessel density, and blood flow in the noses of six humans and two reindeer.

They found a complex and dense microvascular network in both reindeer’s noses. They also observed ring-like and hairpin-like microvessels that were similar to those found in healthy humans. However, the reindeer group had significantly higher vessel density than the human group. The authors speculate that such physiology may help reindeer with cooling during strenuous activities – such as pulling a massive sleigh full of toys through the air. Infrared imaging on the reindeer, taken while they were walking on a treadmill, showed the nose to be a key area of heat release and confirmed the presence of a red nose!

Cross section of the human nose, mouth, and throat. OpenStax College, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The study also involved comparing the nasal microcirculation of human participants before and after the application of a local anesthetic. They also compared the nasal microcirculation of the five healthy volunteers and one patient with nasal polyps.

These inter-human comparisons, combined with the human-reindeer study, helped illustrated the functionality of the group’s recently developed hand-held intravital video microscope and accompanying software. Examining a patient’s nose, or more accurately their nasal microcirculation, can help diagnose several diseases and track a person’s response to multiple treatments. However, such examination was previously limited to laser Doppler flowmetry or immunohistochemical analysis on biopsied materials. The video approach illustrated in this study represented a fast, affordable, and powerful new medical tool.

Hear the scientists describe the research themselves in this short (<5 minute) video or just skip to the part where the reindeer are on the treadmill!

Looking for some guidance on teaching your students how to read a primary research article? Check out our recent post “Sharpening your Skills: Scientific Reading”, this infographic “How to Read a Scientific Paper”, or this PowerPoint from Purdue University “How to Read a Scientific Paper”

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