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Nature & Environment How Man's Best Friend Thinks: Dog Study Reveals Canine's Brain

How Man's Best Friend Thinks: Dog Study Reveals Canine's Brain

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First Posted: Dec 05, 2013 10:59 AM EST
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Thousands of years ago, our ancient ancestors domesticated plants and animals for their own use. Now, though, researchers have shown that we may know far less about this process than we might at first have thought. (Photo : Flickr/Jerry)

What is your dog thinking? Scientists are looking into learning just that. After capturing the first brain images of two alert dogs last year, they've confirmed their methods and results by replicating them in an experiment involving 13 dogs. The findings reveal a little bit more about where a canine brain's reward center is located, which shows scientists a little bit more about how a dog thinks.

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"Our experiment last year was really a proof of concept, demonstrating that dogs could be trained to undergo successful functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)," said Gregory Berns, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Now we've shown that the initial study wasn't a fluke: Canine fMRI is reliable and can be done with minimal stress to the dogs. We have laid the foundation for exploring the neural biology and cognitive processes of man's best and oldest friend."

The past and present experiments involved training the dogs to acclimatize to an fMRI machine. Only the dogs that willingly cooperated were then involved in the actual experiments. The canines then were given fMRI brain scans while they watched a human giving hand signals that they had been trained to understand. One signal indicated that the dog would receive a hot dog for a treat while the other signal meant the dog would not receive the hot dog.

So what did the researchers find? They saw activation in the caudate region of the brain. The caudate sits above the brain stem in mammals and has the highest concentration of dopamine receptors, which are implicated in motivation and pleasure, among other neurological processes. What was more interesting, though, was the difference among the dogs. Six of the dogs in the experiment were specially bred and trained to assist disabled people. These service dogs showed a greater level of positive caudate activation for the hot dog signal when compared to the other dogs.

"We don't know if the service dogs and therapy dogs showed this difference because of genetics, or because of the environment in which they were raised, but we hope to find out in future experiments," said Gregory Berns, one of the researchers, in a news release. "This may be the first hint of how the brains of dogs with different temperaments and personalities differ."

The findings reveal a little bit more about dog brains and point to further research that needs to be conducted. Currently, scientists plan to compare how the canine brain responds to hand signals coming from the dog's owner, a stranger and a computer. This, in turn, could help researchers map out a dog's cognitive process, shedding light on how man's best friend thinks.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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