What's Your Dog Thinking? Imaging the Canine Brain

May 8, 2012

doggie thoughtsWhat’s your dog really thinking? To get a glimpse of canine cognition, Emory researchers have developed a technique to scan the brains of alert dogs and explore the minds of the oldest domesticated species. The technique uses harmless functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the same tool used to look into the human brain.

“It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,” said Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the project. “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 inter-species communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.”

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 answer 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,” Berns said. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”

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,” Berns said. “We wanted them to be unrestrained and go into the scanner willingly.” The dogs were trained to wear earmuffs, to protect them from the noise of the scanner. They were also taught to hold their heads perfectly still on a chin rest during the scanning process, to prevent blurring of the images.

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—Steve Frandzel

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