Discovering the thoughts of dogs with functional MRI


What happens to your four-legged friend when he runs into you at night? Does he consider you a family, his pack leader, a food dispenser? One day interpreting canine thoughts could be easier, thanks to a technique recently experimented at Emory University in Atlanta (USA) and published in PLOs ONE.

The technique used to visualize the brains of assistance dogs ("alert dogs") trained to stay close to the sick and raise the alarm in case of need, was that of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) also used for men. The non-invasive experiment involved two dogs of different breeds, a Feist and a Border Collie, trained for several months to enter the functional magnetic resonance and to remain completely immobile for a few moments, while their neural activity was analyzed . It is the first time that this type of brain activity scanning is practiced on a watchful and non-sleeping dog.

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The animals were taught to respond to some gestures made by their masters: one signal was associated with the greedy reward of a hot dog, the other to no reward. The caudal nucleus of the brain, associated with the concept of reward in humans, activated in both dogs in association with the hot dog signal, but not after the other signal. "This activity indicates that dogs pay close attention to our gestures, and these gestures open a direct channel to the reward circuit, " said Gregory Berns, head of research. The purpose of the scientists is to decode the mental processes of dogs by discovering which brain areas are activated at the various stimuli. Ultimately the experts would like to answer the question: are dogs really empathetic? How do they perceive their master's emotions? How much do they understand about our language?

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The two four-legged volunteers wore special ear muffs to shield themselves from the sound of resonance, and both were shown to be collaborative. One of the two, scientists say, entered the car even when it was not his turn! "The domestication of dogs dates back at least 10 thousand years, according to some to 30 thousand, " Berns added, "their brains tell us something very special about the origins of the relationship between humans and animals. It is possible that dogs played a role in human evolution, and that those who had one with them were in some way better off than others ". Whoever owns one today undoubtedly has the possibility of knowing a very special form of friendship.

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