What Is Your Dog Thinking? Scientists Explore the Dog Brain

2012-05-08 06:37
What is your dog thinking?

Many dog lovers have wondered, “What is my dog thinking? What if my dog could talk.” But because dogs can’t speak in a language people understand, individuals project their own thoughts and expectations about what their dog thinks. Now scientists at Emory University have moved a step closer to understanding the dog brain by capturing images of the canine thought processes.

What does man’s best friend think of people?

It’s too soon to answer this question or the many others dog owners (pet parents) have about their canine companions, but it’s about time an answer was found. Humans domesticated dogs thousands of years ago; in fact, a recent study from the University of Arizona describes a 33,000-year-old skull found in a Siberian mountain cave that is said to be among the oldest known evidence of dog domestication.

But in all those millennia, what do people know about what dogs think? Unfortunately, very little, but that may be beginning to change.

Now, deciphering the dog brain is a mission being pursued by Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and the main research of the new study. Bern and his team members are believed to be the first to produce images of the brain of fully awake, unrestrained dogs, which allow scientists to see canine thought processes.

The images were produced using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a harmless and painless technique also used to explore the human brain. To protect the dogs’ ears from the noise emitted by the fMRI machine, the dogs were fitted with special ear muffs.

In this recent study, the scientists took images of the brains of two dogs (a two-year-old Feist and a three-year-old Border Collie) as they reacted to hand signals to which they had been trained to respond: one signal meant the dogs would get a treat, the other meant they would not.

Both dogs also had been trained over several months to enter an fMRI scanner and stay completely immobile while imaging took place. The fMRI images showed the reward region of the brain (caudate) was activated when the dogs saw the treat hand signal but not when they saw the no-treat signal.

The researchers hope to eventually decode the mental processes of dogs when their brains are stimulated by other factors. Someday, experts may be able to know if dogs can identify their owners’ mood, how much human language dogs understand, and if dogs have empathy.

The question of empathy is already being pursued. In a 2011 article published in Biology Letters, experts explored the idea that dogs have the capacity to empathize with their human companions and argued that they do, “perhaps even at some level beyond emotional contagion.”

As for the current study, the investigators said “We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and inter-species communication.” What is your dog thinking? Hopefully someday soon you’ll find out.

SOURCES:
Emory University
Ovodov ND et al. A 33,000-year-old incipient dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: evidence of the earliest domestication disrupted by the last glacial maximum. PLoS One 2011; 6(7): e22821
Silva K, de Sousa L. Canis emphaticus? A proposal on dogs’ capacity to empathize with humans. Biol Lett 2011 Aug 23; 7(4): 489-92

Image: Courtesy of Timothy Schaefer

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