MRI study hopes to unlock what dogs are thinking

By Muriel Kane
Sunday, May 6, 2012 21:00 EDT
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A dog. Photo: Flickr user ETersigni.
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Republicans have been complaining lately that President Obama is taking credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden that is rightfully due to the Navy SEALS. But for Gregory Berns, director of the Emory University Center for Neuropolicy, the most impressive participant in the operation by far was the U.S. Navy dog who accompanied the SEALS — and that gave him an idea.

“I was amazed when I saw the pictures of what military dogs can do,” Berns says. “I realized that if dogs can be trained to jump out of helicopters and airplanes, we could certainly train them to go into an fMRI to see what they’re thinking.”

MRI studies have been done on dogs that were sedated or restrained, but Berns realized that if dogs who were awake and alert could be trained to hold perfectly still within the functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner, it would be possible to find out how their brains reacted to hand signals from their owners.

Two dogs were selected for the first phase of the study, a southern squirrel-hunting dog named Callie and a border collie named McKenzie. Both were trained to walk into the scanner and hold their heads perfectly still against a chin rest to ensure sharp images.

At the same time, the dogs’ owners were trained to give two different hand signals, one of which meant the dog would get a hot dog treat and one of which meant they would not. According to Science Daily, “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.”

Berns hopes that further phases of the project will attempt to determine how much human language dogs can actually understand and whether they are aware of their owners’ emotions. He also believes the study may have things to teach us not just about our dogs but also about ourselves.

“Bogs are the first domesticated species, going back at least 10,000 years, and by some estimates 30,000 years,” Berns notes. “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.”

As for the dogs, they seem glad to do their part for science. Professional trainer Mark Spivak says they show by their body language that they enjoy the attention and that Callie is particularly enthusiastic. “She enters the scanner on her own, without a command, sometimes when it’s not her turn,” he comments. “She’s eager to participate.”

Photo: Flickr user ETersigni, creative commons licensed.

Muriel Kane
Muriel Kane
Muriel Kane is an associate editor at Raw Story. She joined Raw Story as a researcher in 2005, with a particular focus on the Jack Abramoff affair and other Bush administration scandals. She worked extensively with former investigative news managing editor Larisa Alexandrovna, with whom she has co-written numerous articles in addition to her own work. Prior to her association with Raw Story, she spent many years as an independent researcher and writer with a particular focus on history, literature, and contemporary social and political attitudes. Follow her on Twitter at @Muriel_Kane
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