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Fido's expressive face, including those longing puppy-dog eyes, may lead owners to wonder what exactly is going on in that doggy's head. Scientists decided to find out, using brain scans to explore the minds of our canine friends. The researchers, who detailed their findings May 2 in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, were interested in understanding the human-dog relationship from the four-legged perspective.
"When we saw those first [brain] images, it was unlike anything else," said lead researcher Gregory Berns in a video interview posted online. "Nobody, as far as I know, had ever captured images of a dog's brain that wasn't sedated. This was [a] fully awake, unrestrained dog, here we have a picture for the first time ever of her brain," added Berns, who is director of the Emory University Center for Neuropolicy.
So he and his colleagues trained two dogs to walk into and stay completely still inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner that looks like a tube: Callie, a 2-year-old feist, or southern squirrel-hunting dog; and McKenzie, a 3-year-old border collie.
In the experiment, the dogs were trained to respond to hand signals, with the left hand pointing down signaling the dog would receive a hot-dog treat and the other gesture (both hands pointing toward each other horizontally) meaning "no treat." When the dogs saw the treat signal, the caudate region of the brain showed activity, a region associated with rewards in humans. That same area didn't rev up when dogs saw the no-treat signal
With such an evolutionary history between man and man's best friend, the studies, the researchers point out, "may provide a unique mirror into the human mind," they write. "The dog's brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It’s possible that dogs have even affected human evolution," Berns said.