Dogs in MRIs: Science, brains, and love

Dr. Gregory Berns and his team at Emory University are trying to figure out how dogs’ brains work by training them to lay perfectly still inside a MRI machine. The researchers measure the way a dog’s brain ‘lights up’ when she thinks about different things. I just read an article about this research by Gregory Berns and Peter Cook called “Why did the Dog Walk into the MRI?” What grabbed me most about this article was the justification for doing this research in the first place.

Berns and Cook point out a bunch of good reasons for studying dog cognition and neurobiology.

They note that humans and dogs have evolved to be partners and learning about dog brains can help us understand these evolutionary processes.

They also note that dogs are a good study species because humans are part of dogs’ ‘natural habitat.’ Most of the species we study, rats, pigeons, and monkeys, are in unnatural conditions, which can have a big impact on their behavior and lead to unreliable scientific results. In this respect Berns thinks we can actually do better science on dogs than on species that we don’t naturally interact with.

While I think that the idea of a ‘natural habitat’ is not very clear, and there certainly isn’t much that is natural about putting a dog in an MRI machine, humans do have a long history, an evolutionary history, of collaborating with dogs. In this sense, the training that is part of these experimental protocols is more ‘natural’ for dogs than for likely any other non-human species. I find this interesting.

Finally, Berns and Cook think that because of the close relationship between our species dogs could provide useful models for research on human social behavior, and they might even be useful models for studying human medical disorders such as depression or anxiety.

Dog brain question

my rendition of Milo’s brain

Given all of these scientific benefits, it is surprising that we don’t know much about dog brains. The authors suggest two reasons for this gap in our knowledge. First, dogs are our friends and so there is a cultural aversion to conducting invasive experiments on them. And second, most dog research is based on a citizen science model—everyday people bring in their pets to take part in the experiments. So, of course we can’t actually look in those dogs’ heads.

“Mommy, why is Fido laying so still?”

“We donated his brain to science dear.”

Not a research model likely to get much traction. [Although, I have to admit on days when Milo is engaging in what I call ‘high-jackassery’ this seems tempting. “You want to look at Milo’s brain? Go ahead and take it, he’s not using it. By the way, you’ll need tweezers.”]

MRI lets researchers check out what is going on with a dog’s brain while it is still inside the dog’s head. In other words, it is a non-invasive research method and Fido can go home, play fetch, and cuddle when the experiment is finished.

What’s love got to do with it?

One of the things that philosophy of science investigates is what makes scientific research a good way of producing knowledge. The philosopher of science in me is intrigued because the reasons Berns and Cook give for using their method of studying dog brains arise from the relationships between dogs and people, relationships that can include engagement, respect, and love. There is a tendency for people to assume that good science, objective science, requires that researchers be emotionally detached from whatever they are studying.

But, here is a case where our relationships with dogs, as a group, and as individual creatures, drove scientific creativity. Because we love them, we want to know about them and don’t want to hurt them. This lead researchers to develop a new experimental protocol (the whole dogs in MRIs thing) that has the potential to help us learn interesting and important new things. Love lead to good science. I wonder what different things we might know if we loved rats and monkeys like we love dogs?



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