Maybe it’s just me, but it seems only fitting for a Midwesterner to talk about research with pigs. I have something to confess, though: I’m from the Illinois suburbs. I can’t recall ever meeting a real pig, and most of what I know of them is from reading stories and watching television. On the page and screen, they’re smelly and wallow in the mud. In the Peanuts comic strip, there’s a character named Pigpen who walks around in a perpetual dust storm. Pigs are synonymous with greed and gluttony – in the animated movie Spirited Away, the main character’s parents are turned into pigs for chowing down on food that isn’t meant for them.

But pigs don’t deserve the bum rap they have in our culture. Actually, piglets may be helping your children become smarter.

For ethical reasons, human infants aren’t used in studies of their brain when the study involves extracting and examining brain tissue. So animal models can serve as a substitute for research that benefits infants.

For instance, researchers at the University of Illinois (U of I) are learning more about infant brain development by studying piglets.

Piglets in research

Piglets are helping researchers better understand infant brain development.

The piglet model is a good choice because human brains and piglet brains experience similar growth spurts after birth, albeit pigs’ development occurs in a shorter period of time.

Recently the U of I published a study showing that a combination of chemicals mimicking those found in breast milk had a noticeable effect on the part of the brain called the internal capsule, which matures after birth. This finding suggests that those piglets were more developmentally advanced than piglets which didn’t receive the combination of chemicals. It also gave definitive evidence that even after birth, and not just during pregnancy, nutrition plays an important role in neurodevelopment.

However, pigs aren’t just an important model for neurodevelopment.

In fact, nutritionist Harry Dawson of the Agricultural Research Service’s Beltsville Human Nutrition Center in Maryland has helped develop and maintain the Porcine Translational Research Database. This database contains information on genes and proteins. Through comparative analysis, Dawson has found that humans share more immune-system related genes and proteins with pigs than they do with mice.

This can be especially useful when studying infectious diseases, like staph infections and classical swine fever virus, which shares characteristics of hemorrhagic fevers not only in pigs, but in humans. By observing the way the virus interacts with antigen cells, researchers could uncover new ways to treat patients afflicted with hemorrhagic fevers.

They’ve also been integral for research of respiratory infections as well as gastrointestinal infections.

One of the major public health threats in the US today is obesity. Pigs are invaluable for researching this condition which leads to diabetes, heart disease and other potentially deadly diseases. Both humans and pigs are omnivores, have similar sized organs and similar body fat distribution.

In 2013, Kati Hanhineva, an adjunct professor with the University of Eastern Finland worked with Gloria Solano-Aguilar, a microbiologist with the Agricultural Research Service, to study metabolic changes in pig organs and biofluids when the pigs ate a high-fat diet. They observed dramatic changes in the way the tissue metabolized fat.

Given the research and discoveries involving pigs, perhaps it’s time to stop dissing the swine. Sure, they like to roll in the mud to keep cool and maybe their table manners aren’t the best, but the knowledge gained from these animals has the potential to help a lot of people.

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