fMRI Study Helps Reveal Unique Biomarkers in the Reward Center of the Brain

Canine Companions dog in a MRI machine

Science at Canine Companions for Independence®

The science and innovation to better understand assistance dogs continues to progress at Canine Companions for Independence. Between 2014-2016, we worked with a consortium of canine research centers from Emory University, Georgia Tech, the University of California, Berkeley and Dog Star Technologies for a state of the art study focused on the reward center of the canine brain.

Over the course of two years, 50 Canine Companions dogs in professional training at the Northwest Training Center were trained using positive reinforcement to lie still in a special dog-friendly functional MRI (fMRI) machine. Training began with an MRI simulator, complete with the bangs and clangs of an MRI machine played on a CD. After successfully learning to lie still in an MRI, each dog was taken once to UC Berkeley to have the real fMRI done. The dogs participating in the study wore earplugs, were unsedated and unrestrained for the short duration in the MRI. Participation in this study had no bearing on the dogs’ progress or success in regular professional training.

Building on previous research conducted by Gregory Berns of Emory University with pet dogs, including four released Canine Companions dogs, a fascinating pattern began to emerge. Canine Companions dogs stood apart from the pet dogs in one interesting measurement—the fMRI determined that the reward center of the brain acted differently when our dogs were rewarded by their familiar handler than by a stranger. Pet dogs didn’t have the same biomarker changes.

Dogs participating in this study were scanned in two scenarios, hand signals for treat and no-treat by their handler or trainer; and hand signals for treat and no-treat from a stranger. The research team aimed to study these neural biomarkers to determine if success in different fields of assistance dog work could be visualized through fMRI before professional training.

This study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and we hope it will provide greater insight into canine cognition and, specifically, the unique behavior of our assistance dogs.

Journal article