Seeing How Dogs Think, Via MRI

Seeing dogs think on MRIHuman brain activity has been investigated for quite some time now using what’s known as “functional magnetic resonance imaging,” which basically captures changes in blood flow within the brain. So, if a particular stimulus always makes blood flow increase in one particular part of the brain, then the conclusion is that that part of the brain governs the human being’s response to that stimulus. Human beings cooperate in this kind of research merely by keeping their heads very still while in an MRI machine and paying attention to whatever the researchers want them to pay attention to.

As anyone would know who has ever had to get their dog or cat medically (or veterinarily) scanned in any way, or merely had to consider it, it is de rigeur for pets to be put under—knocked out—before undergoing such a scan or x-ray. There’s simply no other way to get them to stay sufficiently still so that the pictures obtained are usable, other than very dramatic restraint measures. Or at least, so it was always thought. (Putting the dog or cat under anesthesia also adds to the expense and stress of such scans, naturally.)

Well, researchers at Emory University have achieved a breakthrough in this regard, in their pursuit of greater understanding about how the canine brain works. They took a two-year-old dog named Callie (a so-called “Feist” or small squirrel-hunting dog) and a three-year-old Border Collie named McKenzie and they trained both dogs over the course of several months to walk into an MRI scanner, rest their heads on a chin rest and hold perfectly still. The dogs also wear ear muffs to shield them from the noise of the machine. In this position, the researchers have begun introducing various stimuli and mapping which areas of the dogs’ brains respond with increased blood flow. Pretty interesting, huh?

Science Daily quotes Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and the lead researcher for this project, as saying:

It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog. As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously. We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and inter-species communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.

There are no doubt some interesting discoveries to come. Of-course, there is always a tendency for advanced scientific research to move mountains and expend all kinds of energy in determining things that, after all, were pretty obvious.

In the first experiment which has been reported on, the dogs were trained to recognize two human hand signals. One meant that a treat was coming. The other meant there would be no treat. When these hand signals were shown to the dogs standing still in the MRI scanner, the caudate region of the dogs’ brains was seen to respond to the signal promising a treat. That is the same region of the human brain which previous research has associated with a “reward” response. The region showed no activity when the hand signal for “no treat” was shown to the dogs. Dr. Berns is quoted: “These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals. And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.” Hmm, quite a discovery.

I think most people find that their dogs learn every nuance of every signal that might mean an edible treat will be coming. This is why treats are so useful in training dogs to perform all kinds of tasks. Our own dog has learned a very wide vocabulary of words in English that correspond to food which she might receive, and mostly she has learned these without any deliberate attempt at training. These are things she just makes it her business to know. She also knows the names of places where she goes where a treat might be forthcoming; i.e., Petco, the bank, etc. (She also learns many things not associated with food, but not with the same immediacy and ease.)

So, a dog, a hand signal, a reward and a response: this is not so revolutionary. Down the road I have no doubt that there will be more interesting stuff.


Meanwhile, this idea of training dogs to stay still in an MRI scanner is pretty interesting and revolutionary, although you can’t help wondering why it hasn’t been tried before. It could save no small amount of grief and expense if we could all train our dogs to stand still in such a circumstance, rather than having to be made unconscious.

Time to get the treats out and fire up the ol’ MRI.

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