Can fMRI scans show what your dog is thinking?

Emory University researchers have begun a project to scan the brains of alert dogs using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and see how they react to hand signals from their owners.

The aim is to understand dogs’ thinking by recording which areas of their brains are activated when they interact with humans. Ultimately, the team hopes to answer questions such as whether dogs have empathy, and how much language they really understand.

Two dogs are involved in the first phase of the project. Callie is a two-year-old Feist, or southern squirrel-hunting dog, while McKenzie is a three-year-old Border Collie, already well-trained in agility competition by her owner.

Both dogs have been trained over several months to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their neural activity. They even wear earmuffs to protect against the scanner’s noise.

“It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,” says Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project.

“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.”

In the first experiment, the dogs have been trained to respond to hand signals, with one signal meaning the dog would receive a treat, and another that it wouldn’t.

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.

“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,” Berns says. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”

Berns points out that humans and dogs have been living togetyher for at least 100,000 years, andpossibly as many as 30,000.

“The dog’s brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It’s possible that dogs have even affected human evolution,” he says.

“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.”