Humans may have evolutionary bond with dogs - study

2014-10-17 10:00

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New York - Brain scans showing that human responses to our dogs are not unlike those evoked by our children and suggest a deep evolutionary bond, according to a recent study.

The findings are in line with dogs' special place as mankind's best friend, and may support the benefits of dog-assisted therapies, researchers say.

"The overlap says a lot about how similar the relationships could be, but we're only speculating", said Lori Palley, who led the study with Luke Stoeckel at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The experiments involved 14 mothers aged between 22 to 45, each with at least one child between two and 10-years-old and one dog owned for at least two years.

Each woman underwent magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, (which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow) and viewed images of her own child and dog as well as unfamiliar children and canines.

Afterwards the mothers took an 11-question multiple choice test that asked about the hair colour of their child and dog, the number of pictures viewed and had the women rate images based on their emotional value.

Increased activity

"Basically we compared the human-pet bond with that of the maternal-child relationship and analysed patterns of brain activity when moms viewed the images with the aim of understanding what areas might be common and what areas distinct," said Palley, who is assistant director of Veterinary Services at the hospital's Centre for Comparative Medicine.

When mothers looked at pictures of their own kids and their own dogs, areas of their brains associated with emotion, reward, visual processing and social cognition showed increased activity on the scans.

But there was more brain activity in areas involved in bond formation (typically maternal-child and romantic bonds) when mothers viewed their own children versus their own dogs, the study team reports in the journal Plos One.

"What's really interesting about this is we suspect that perhaps there is some evolutionary significance to that," said Palley.

"It would make sense that would be an area where you would want it to be kind of specific for relationships that should be sustained at all cost."

In all cases, brain responses were strongest when the women viewed their own child versus one they didn't know and their own dog versus an unknown dog.

An area of the brain involved in visual and social processing was more active when moms looked at their pets than at their kids.

"I think perhaps we process the dog's face differently than we process the human face, but we don't know that. We'd actually have to do more work to look at that area more specifically to determine exactly what this finding means," Palley said.

She added that she was interested in the health benefits of pet ownership and animal-assisted therapy and, in this study, wanted to examine the science involved.

Read more on:    us  |  animals  |  research

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