At a flick of the trainer’s wrist, Sparky the dolphin reared back and slid through the water to Dalia Morales Gutierrez, a 2-year-old girl suspended by a therapist treading water.
Sparky nuzzled up to the back of the girl’s head, opened her snout and chirped for a few seconds. Then she glided back over to the trainer to receive a chunk of fish.
This is part of a therapy program for children with neurological disorders that by every account is experimental and unproven. Yet its directors - and many of its clients - say that for reasons they can’t fully explain, it seems to work.
The program’s medical director, Dr. Misael Vilchis Quiroz, said the dolphins can diagnose and treat neurological problems. Scientists are skeptical.
“It sounds pretty hokey,” said Dr. Bernard Rimland, director of the Autism Research Institute in San Diego. “There is no scientific evidence at all that using dolphins is helpful. The reputable people in the field simply feel the kids like the dolphins and it’s a recreational thing.”
Four days a week, the dolphins at Mexico City’s Aragon Aquarium take a break from jumping, flipping and playing with a ball to nuzzle with and chirp at children suffering from disorders such as autism, Down syndrome and movement disorders.
Until about a year ago, the program was similar to others in Florida, Philadelphia and Australia that help rehabilitate people by having them swim with dolphins. But a new team has taken over the company that administers the treatment, and it has set its goals much higher.
Vilchis Quiroz, the medical director of the Convimar company, said he identifies what part of the brain is damaged before children begin treatment, then has the therapists signal the dolphins to work on that area with their high-powered ultrasound.
Sometimes the dolphins refuse and move to another part of the head. Every time that has happened, he said, further tests have revealed the doctors’ initial diagnosis was wrong. “They know more than we do,” he said.
“Using sonar that they have, they somehow see the damage and emit the appropriate frequency,” Vilchis said. “There are things we don’t understand. But what I do know is that it works.”
He said 90 percent of his patients show significant results, although he hasn’t completed a formal survey.
Vilchis conceded that his medical specialty is plastic surgery, but added that he “took several neurology classes last year.”
Experts are skeptical that a dolphin would be able to diagnose a developmental problem. They note that no scientific study has ever been conducted to see if the treatment works.
“I’d be quite surprised if there was any validity to the notion that they (dolphins) could target any particular area with their ultrasound,” said Michael Westerveld, a pediatric neuropsychologist at Yale University’s School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn.
“If there’s any success, I’d be much more inclined to attribute it to the general effects of … the opportunity to interact with animals,” he said. “You could buy them a puppy and probably see the same results.”
Even Sparky’s trainer, Gustavo Vargas, was skeptical.
“It’s just that they like swimming with the dolphins,” he said. “The dolphins don’t know what they’re doing.”
But many of the desperate families that come to the Aragon Aquarium from across Latin America see it differently.
Adriana Molina, who lives in Guadalajara, heard about the program on television and made the 280-mile trip to Mexico City with her 2-year-old daughter Maria Fernanda.
“(She) was very hyperactive, and now she’s calm,” Molina said. “She can’t walk either, and now she seems a little more solid on her feet.”
She paid $470 for eight 13-minute sessions over two weeks.
“In Guadalajara, they do free-swimming with dolphins, but not this kind of treatment,” she said. “I have a lot of faith that this will work. At least I hope it will.”