Using an MRI to “See” What Man’s Best Friend Feels
What if it were possible to know what a dog feels?
Fascinating research made possible by MRI technology has uncovered a partial answer to this baffling question. Since man’s best friend can’t speak to us directly, we must rely on indirect information – barking, or tail-wagging, for instance. But do sick or confused dogs show the same behavior? Does a dog that doesn’t bark or wag its tail still feel something when it sees a familiar person? And is it the same thing a dog feels when it sees another familiar dog? Some of these questions were answered.
Emory University Professor Gregory Berns believed that neuroscience could offer some clues. He reasoned that knowing more about how dogs react neurologically could affect the way we treat them. In a recent article in The New York Times, Berns describes training his dog, and others, to remain still in MRI machines to be scanned for a study.
Findings are preliminary – studies are ongoing – but one part of a dog’s brain is already demonstrating a remarkable similarity to a human brain: the caudate nucleus. The caudate nucleus is a part of the human brain whose activity can, with some consistency, predict a person’s preference for food or music. So it was with dogs in the study: their caudate nuclei responded to “hand signals indicating food,” the odor of familiar humans, and perhaps the return of an owner who had just disappeared from view.
A remarkable aspect of the research is that dogs are trained to remain completely still inside the MRI unit. Berns notes that vets usually anesthetize dogs for scans like this, but an anesthetized dog would not be able to display emotional reactions. The ability of dogs in the study to remain motionless when requested, made possible by positive training by investigators, allowed the MRI scanner to capture images of brain activity — and thus, to study dogs’ reactions to stimuli. The team was able to train twelve dogs to obtain MRI scans in this way.
It turns out that dogs are like us in ways that we could never have “seen.” Perhaps one day Berns’ team will be able to know when dogs are impatient, worried, or just wanting a little more attention.
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