Brain scans of dogs could give researchers a new tool for studying what happens in the mind of man’s best friend.
“I think it could open a whole new type of research on cognition,” said neuroscientist Greg Berns of Emory University, lead author on a dog-scanning study that will be published in Public Library of Science One.
Berns described the initial findings, in which brain regions expected to become active in anticipation of reward did just that, as a proof-of-concept to show that studying a dog inside a functional magnetic resonance imager was logistically feasible.
According to Berns, who typically investigates how human decision-making plays out in our brains, dogs may be a better animal model for studying cognition than the monkeys commonly used in such research.
FMRI representations of neurological activity produced by reward anticipation in the brains of Callie and McKenzie. Image: Berns et al./SSRN
To a monkey, a laboratory full of humans is a profoundly strange and unnatural environment, which could influence how it thinks — whereas interacting with humans is second nature to dogs.
Of course, standing inside an FMRI machine isn’t exactly a normal canine experience, and Berns’ team needed eight months to train his dogs, a 2-year-old feist named Callie and a 3-year-old border collie named McKenzie, to remain motionless inside the machine while wearing noise-reducing earmuffs.
Among the questions that might be studied is whether dogs understand the language of human commands, or respond more to body movements or other cues.
“One of the things we’re interested in is how dogs represent humans: Are we all just a pack to them, like Cesar Millan says? What part of the brain represents humans and other dogs? It could be sound, or scent, or any of those modalities,” Berns said.
Dog empathy, and how it compares to the human version, is another possible area of investigation.
“Dog-lovers are convinced their dogs know what they’re feeling. Honestly, I’m on the fence about that. Maybe that’s because of my own dogs,” said Berns. “Skeptics out there — a.k.a. cat people — think dogs are just good actors. I don’t think it’s quite like that. But how far it goes, I’d love to figure out.”