Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, used a harmless functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the same tool that is unlocking secrets of the human brain, to see how a dogs brain reacted to their owners.
Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project said, “It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog. As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously. We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and interspecies communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.”
The reseachers first experiment will be published in PLoS ONE and showing how the brains of dogs reacted to hand signals given by their owners.
One signal meant the dog would receive a treat, and the other signal meant it would not. The dogs brain caudate region, associated with rewards in humans, showed activation in both dogs when they saw the treat signal, but not the other one.
“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals. And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system,” Berns stated.
The research is trying to decode the mental process of a dogs brain and recording which areas are activated by different types of interaction.
Researcher Gregory Berns said, “To the skeptics out there, and the cat people, I would say that dogs are the first domesticated species, going back at least 10,000 years, and by some estimates 30,000 years. The dog’s brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It’s possible that dogs have even affected human evolution. People who took dogs into their homes and villages may have had certain advantages. As much as we made dogs, I think dogs probably made some part of us, too.”
The dogs wore earmuffs to protect them from the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner noise. They were also taught to hold their head very still. All procedures for the dog project were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of Emory. “From the outset, we wanted to ensure the safety and comfort of the dogs. We wanted them to be unrestrained and go into the scanner willingly,” Berns said.