Understanding Man’s Best Friend

You might have wondered what’s going on inside the mind of a canine. Neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University in Atlanta is training dogs to sit inside MRI scans to see what’s happening inside their brains.


You might have wondered what's going on inside the mind of a canine.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, of Emory University in Atlanta, is training dogs to sit inside MRI scans to see what's happening inside their brains.

Our partner 'Science Friday' has the story.

They were the first animals to live with us, and so, to me, it makes a lot of sense to understand what's going on in their heads.

Oh, I don't mind kisses from you.

[ Laughs ] My name is Gregory Berns.

I'm a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and I train dogs to go in an MRI scanner so I can figure out what they're thinking.

♪♪ A lot of other scientists would say that we'll never know what it's like to be another animal.

I think the crux of that is because, as far as we know, no other animal can talk and tell us what it's like to be that animal.

I don't think the situation is at all that severe.

So, the dog we're scanning today -- his name is Zen.

In many ways, his name reflects his personality.

He's a very chill dog.

Zen has been with the Dog Project almost from the beginning.

We started this project, which we just call the Dog Project.

We recruit people from the community to teach their dogs how to go in an MRI scanner.

It's really just a matter of getting the dog used to laying down, putting their head in a chin rest, learning to wear ear protection, like earplugs, and then getting used to the really quite loud noise of the scanner.

[ Whirring ] The thing that continues to surprise me the most -- and it comes up in every experiment we do -- is how different the dogs are from each other.

The level of this individuality is the same level that we see in humans, doing these experiments.

The approach that we've taken treats the dogs as individuals, in the sense that they're not anesthetized and they're not restrained.

And so they can walk in the scanner.

They can walk out.

This is really quite a radical change in the way we do biomedical research.

[ Film projector clicking ] With dogs, historically, we've been limited to what we call behavioral experiments.

Oftentimes, they'll get a choice of going to one stimulus or another.

And then, from that, you have to deduce what they're thinking.

I think it's very difficult to just know what a dog is thinking and how they see the world from their behavior.

What the imaging gets us is a way around that, because we don't really ask the dogs to do anything except just stay still in the scanner.

Good boy, Zen!

And then we go directly to their brain to try to read out how they're processing the world.

[ Whirring ] That's excellent.

When we're studying the brain with MRI, every little pixel that we see contains thousands of neurons.

So it's like looking at a country like the United States from outer space.

You can see the roads and you can see movement of things, but you can't see the people there.

With imagings, we can't see the neurons, but we can see how they're connected to each other.

And then we can deduce how it's functioning.

We take those images, which are simply just digital slices through the dog's brain, which measure changes in blood flow and blood oxygen, linked to activity in the brain, and then we try to figure out what parts of the brain are involved in responding to whatever the subject is doing.

Mammalian brains tend to look fairly similar in a lot of ways.

A large part of this project with the dogs is trying to identify parts of their brain that seem analogous to parts in human brains.

And the way we do that is -- we do the same experiments that we've done in humans in the scanner and adapt it to make a dog version.

Many of our experiments focus on a particular structure that's associated with reward processing.

We might show a dog an object or we might present them with a scent and then we'll look in that region to see if there are increases in signal intensity, and that will tell us that the dog's responding to it in a particular way so we can understand, in some sense, what a dog is thinking and feeling.

What we're doing right now is -- we're trying to understand how dogs process two-dimensional images.

It's very peculiar how dogs react to images, and it's not clear what they get out of an image.

Humans are really good at knowing that a picture is a representation of something real.

It's unclear whether other animals can do that or how well they do that.

Just small earplugs.



He's being shown his objects, and one of them has been associated with a treat.

So we want to see how he responds to the thing that was associated with the treat, as well as its 3-D or 2-D equivalent.

So, that will tell us if there's a specific part of the brain that differentiates 2-D and 3-D, as there is in humans.

We're watching his brain right here.

What we have to do after the fact is go and sync that up with the stimuli that he's seeing and look for changes in activity in certain parts of his brain.

With regards to dogs, I think we are just at the beginning.

When I started the project, I had no expectations.

It was an idea in search of a question.

'Hey, can I train my dog to go in the scanner to see what she's thinking?'

It slowly built from just really basic reward processing to really complicated questions about how they see the world, you know, things like how they process human speech, really pushing it to the level that we use with human subjects.

In essentially all the experiments we've done, we see evidence that dogs also experience basic emotions.

Many of the things these animals experience also exist within us.

We have words to describe it.

The dog doesn't.

But that doesn't mean that they don't exist there.

And I think perhaps the only way that we're gonna figure it out is by looking into their brains because they can't speak to us.