First MRI brain scans reveal what your dogs really think of you

Updated: 2012-05-09
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The dreams of dog-lovers have come true - and a new scan will let them know how their pets REALLY feel about them. 
 
In the wake of a series of studies which have allowed scientists to use MRI scanners - magnetic resonance imaging - to look 'inside' human minds, scientists are now scanning dogs. 
 
'We hope this opens up a whole new door for inter-species communication,' says Gregory Berns, of Emory University, Atlanta. 'We want to understand our relationship, from the dog's perspective.’ 
  
  

'It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,' says Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project. 'As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously.' 
  

In the wake of a series of studies which have allowed scientists to use MRI scanners - magnetic resonance imaging - to look 'inside' human minds, scientists are now scanning dogs 
  

As the oldest domesticated animal, the researchers believe that understanding a dog's brain may help us understand our own - ie that humans may have evolved alongside their pets
    
Many dog lovers all over the world imagine how their pets must feel about them, but no one has captured images of actual canine thought processes -- until now. 
 
The Public Library of Science is publishing the results of their first experiment, showing how the brains of dogs reacted to hand signals given by their owners. 
   
Berns says. '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.'
 
It's not clear, however, what emotions a dog can sense - or whether it can sense if its owner is happy or sad. Further scans aim to investigate this.

'It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,’ says Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project. ‘As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously.’ 
 
'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,’ Prof Berns says.

'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.’ 
  
 

Berns says. '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.' 
  

Two dogs were trained over several months to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their neural activity
 
Two dogs are involved in the first phase of the project. Callie is a two-year-old Feist, or southern squirrel-hunting dog. Berns adopted her at nine months from a shelter.

McKenzie is a three-year-old Border Collie, who was already well-trained in agility competition by her owner, Melissa Cate.

Both dogs were trained over several months to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their neural activity. 
 
The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand? 
 
In the first experiment, the dogs were trained to respond to hand signals. One signal meant the dog would receive a hot dog treat, and another signal meant it would not receive one.

The caudate region of the brain, associated with rewards in humans, showed activation in both dogs when they saw the signal for the treat, but not for the no-treat signal. 
 
'These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,’ Prof Berns says. ‘And these signals may have a direct line to the dog's reward system.’
 
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