Brain Activity of Dogs


Today’s prompt is asking us to talk about the funniest scientific discovery from our field. Now, we don’t know if what we’re going to talk about is really the funniest one because, unfortunately, there is no Funniest Neuroscience competition. But it’s about dogs, so it’s got to be good.

It turns out, there is an entire subfield dedicated to dog neuroscience. No, it’s not cute dogs in lab coats doing fun brain experiments, but it’s still pretty awesome. Dogs can easily be trained to perform a variety of tasks. And among those is also the ability to wear earmuffs (for sound protection) and lie still in MRI scanners while having their brain imaged. In other words, it makes dogs perfect for having their brain activity investigated using fMRI.

As for the motivations behind this, there are plenty. On the one hand, comparative neuroimaging (i.e. looking at brain activity across different species) allows us to identify both similarities and differences in brain organization and function across species. We could find out, for example, what features are unique to the human brain and which ones are shared with other animals.

On the other hand, due to the fact that humans and dogs have developed in close contact over the last thousands of years and because they share similar environments, scientists can investigate different processes in dogs compared to animals that do not share this kind of relationship with humans. For example, they can look at how dogs process human faces or how they respond to human voices.

And finally, as we’ve already mentioned, dogs can be trained to lie still and awake. This makes the experiments more naturalistic and potentially increases their validity. What’s more, it minimizes stress to the animals.

If you’d like to read more, feel free to check the sources at the bottom of this article, as well as the books of Gregory Berns. He is the one who pioneered awake fMRI in dogs. And now, it’s time for a video of a dog being trained in the MRI, plus some cute pictures:

Image credits:

Image credits: Everyday Research Methods

Image credits: NPR

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Further reading

Cook, P. F., Brooks, A., Spivak, M., & Berns, G. S. (2016). Regional brain activations in awake unrestrained dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior16, 104-112.

Simon, T., Guo, K., Frasnelli, E., Wilkinson, A., & Mills, D. S. (2022). Testing of behavioural asymmetries as markers for brain lateralization of emotional states in pet dogs: A critical review. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 104950.

Thompkins, A. M., Deshpande, G., Waggoner, P., & Katz, J. S. (2016). Functional magnetic resonance imaging of the domestic dog: Research, methodology, and conceptual issues. Comparative cognition & behavior reviews11, 63.

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