Neu­ro­sci­en­tist may know what your dog is think­ing, and you’ll prob­a­bly like it

The Times-Tribune - - Health & Science - BY CLAU­DIA DREIFUS

Dr. Gre­gory Berns, 53, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at Emory Univer­sity in At­lanta, spends his days scan­ning the brains of dogs, try­ing to fig­ure out what they’re think­ing. The re­search is de­tailed in a new book, “What It’s Like to Be a Dog.”

Among the find­ings: Your dog may re­ally love you for you — not for your food.

We spoke dur­ing his re­cent visit to New York City and later by tele­phone. The con­ver­sa­tion be­low has been edited and con­densed for space and clar­ity.

Q: How did your ca­nine stud­ies be­gin?

A: It re­ally started with the mis­sion that killed (Osama) bin Laden. There had been this dog, Cairo, who’d leapt out of the he­li­copter with the Navy SEALs.

Watch­ing the news cov­er­age gave me an idea. He­li­copters are in­cred­i­bly noisy. Dogs have ex­tremely sen­si­tive hear­ing. I thought, “Gee, if the mil­i­tary can train dogs to get into noisy he­li­copters, it might be pos­si­ble to get them into noisy MRIs.”

Q: Why?

A: To find out what dogs think and feel.

A year ear­lier, my fa­vorite dog, a pug named New­ton, had died. I thought about him a lot. I won­dered if he’d loved me, or if our re­la­tion­ship had been more about the food I’d pro­vided.

As a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, I’d seen how MRI stud­ies helped us un­der­stand which parts of the hu­man brain were in­volved in emo­tional pro­cesses. Per­haps MRI test­ing could teach us sim­i­lar things about dogs. I won­dered if dogs had anal­o­gous func­tions in their brains to what we hu­mans have.

The big im­ped­i­ment do­ing this type of test­ing was to find some way to get dogs into an MRI and get them to hold still for long enough to ob­tain use­ful images.

Q: How did you solve that?

A: I worked with an At­lantabased dog trainer, Mark Spi­vak, to break down the steps that might make it pos­si­ble for dogs to go into an MRI.

In my base­ment, I built an MRI sim­u­la­tor. We in­tro­duced Callie, the fam­ily ter­rier and the New­ton re­place­ment, to it — ac­cli­mat­ing her to the noise, teach­ing her to climb the stairs lead­ing to the ma­chine, re­cline into a head­rest and be mo­tion­less for in­creas­ing pe­ri­ods of time.

Af­ter she mas­tered these tasks, we com­bined them, as would be nec­es­sary when she en­coun­tered a real MRI. It took her three months of prac­tic­ing ev­ery day. Af­ter per­fect­ing a train­ing sys­tem, we sent out a call to lo­cal dog own­ers for vol­un­teers for the study.

Since 2012, we’ve trained and scanned about 90 dogs. As a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple, we never re­strained or drugged any. If a dog wants to get up from the MRI and leave, they can. There’s no com­pul­sion.

Q: What did the ac­tual test­ing look like?

A: Mostly, we did tests anal­o­gous to neu­ro­science tests al­ready done on peo­ple. For in­stance, we trained the dogs to do the go, no-go test. It is sim­i­lar to the fa­mous marsh­mal­low ex­per­i­ment, which mea­sures the abil­ity of peo­ple to de­lay grat­i­fi­ca­tion.

For the dogs, we trained them to nose-poke a tar­get when­ever they heard a whis­tle — go. Then, we taught them that arms raised in a cross meant no-go. If they saw raised arms while hear­ing a whis­tle, it was still no-go.

In the scanner, we could see that when we went no-go, a part of the pre­frontal lobe be­came ac­tive. Dogs who had more ac­tiv­ity there did bet­ter. It is the same for hu­mans in the marsh­mal­low test.

I don’t be­lieve this has been seen be­fore in non pri­mates. It shows that dogs use cor­re­spond­ing parts of their brain to solve sim­i­lar tasks as peo­ple do.

Q: Do dogs love us more than food? How did you test for that?

A: We did an ex­per­i­ment where we gave them hot dogs some of the time and praise some of the time. When we com­pared their re­sponses and looked at the re­wards cen­ter of their brains, the vast num­ber of dogs re­sponded to praise and food equally.

Now, about 20 per­cent had stronger re­sponses to praise than to food. From that, we con­clude that the vast ma­jor­ity of dogs love us at least as much as food.

An­other thing that we’ve learned by show­ing pic­tures of ob­jects and peo­ple to the dogs is that they have ded­i­cated parts of their brain for pro­cess­ing faces. So dogs are in many ways wired to process faces.

This means that dogs aren’t just learn­ing from be­ing around us that hu­man faces are im­por­tant — they are born to look at faces. This wasn’t known be­fore.

Q: Are there prac­ti­cal uses to your re­search?

A: It can be use­ful for train­ing ser­vice dogs.

For two years, we col­lab­o­rated with Ca­nine Com­pan­ions for In­de­pen­dence to study pup­pies slated to become ser­vice dogs. Most ser­vice dogs cost be­tween $20,000 and $60,000, be­cause they need ex­tremely in­tense train­ing to be able to do their fu­ture work.

Even though these pup­pies are specif­i­cally bred for the task, a great many turn out to be in­ap­pro­pri­ate. Ca­nine Com­pan­ions wanted us to try to iden­tify which pup­pies were most likely to suc­ceed.

So we scanned their pup­pies and fol­lowed up on them later. We found that the dogs who were the best can­di­dates had more ac­tiv­ity in the brain re­gion that has the most dopamine re­cep­tors, the cau­date nu­cleus.

They also had less ac­tiv­ity in the part of the brain associated with fear and anx­i­ety, the amyg­dala.

Q: You’ve done brain-scan­ning of sea li­ons. What has that taught you?

A: In re­cent years, record num­bers of sea li­ons have been wash­ing up on Cal­i­for­nia beaches, hav­ing seizures and un­able to func­tion.

With other re­searchers, we scanned the brains of stranded an­i­mals, look­ing to pin­point the dam­aged parts. It turns out to be the hip­pocam­pus. This is what is dam­aged in peo­ple with tem­po­ral lobe epilepsy.

The sea li­ons taught me that con­scious­ness dis­or­ders in an­i­mals can look very sim­i­lar to con­scious­ness dis­or­ders in peo­ple. In fact, the ag­gre­gate of my re­search has made me re­al­ize how sim­i­lar many an­i­mals are to us . ... When you look at their brains, you re­al­ize how sim­i­lar some of their pro­cesses are. You rec­og­nize that they are not just things.


Dr. Gre­gory Berns, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist at Emory Univer­sity, with Zen, a re­triever mix, at an MRI ma­chine in At­lanta in July.


Wil, an Aus­tralian shep­herd, who is part of an ex­per­i­ment by Dr. Gre­gory Berns, rests on an MRI ma­chine at Emory Univer­sity in At­lanta in July. Wil’s head is wrapped with med­i­cal gauze to hold in earplugs that muf­fle the noise from the ma­chine.

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