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Oct 07, 2013 10:02 AM EDT

Dogs Experience Similar Emotions as Humans, Study

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A professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, Atlanta has solved the puzzle behind why dogs are considered to be man's best friend after successfully decoding their ability to understand human emotions.

Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at the university in Georgia said that dogs experience emotions similar to humans. After studying results of MRI scans of a dog's brain, Berns discovered that both dogs and humans use the same part of the brain to 'feel.'

According to the New York Times, MRIs can reveal dogs' thinking by looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviourism. Veterinary practitioners usually sedate the canines to conduct the process.

"But that means they can't study their brain functions, at least, not anything interesting like perception or emotion," Berns told Times.

In an attempt to successfully get a dog's MRI scan while it is conscious, Berns began training his own dog, Callie, a skinny black terrier mix. Callie was trained to go into a MRI scanner placed in his living room. With the help of Mark Spivak, a dog trainer, Callie learned to position her head in a custom-fitted chin rest and stay motionless for up to 30 seconds.

After several months of training and numerous trials, they finally got a MRI scan of Callie. Berns discovered similarity in the structure and function of a key brain region, the caudate nucleus, between dogs and humans.

The caudate is located between the brainstem and the cortex, which is rich in dopamine receptors. Berns said that in humans, the caudate plays an important role in feeling anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money.

The researchers found that the activity in the caudate region increased in dogs when hand signals indicated food. The caudate was also responsible for activating scent of familiar humans. In the tests, the region became active when an owner returned after disappearing for few minutes.

"Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate," said Berns.

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