Dogs are also the brain’s best friend

BioTechniques News
Aisha Al-Janabi

A new neuroimaging study has found that petting real dogs engages the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for regulating emotional and social interactions.

In case you needed another reason to convince your family to get a dog, there’s now a scientific reason why you could benefit from having one around. Researchers from the University of Basel (Switzerland), led by Rahel Marti, have used neuroimaging techniques to monitor brain activity during interactions with dogs.

It is well known that interacting with dogs eases stress and depression. Numerous organizations have advocated for the importance of animal-assisted therapy but being able to pinpoint the underlying brain activity may facilitate a more specialized role for dogs in clinical therapies.

The research team used non-invasive near-infrared spectroscopy to monitor the prefrontal brain activity of 19 healthy participants as they underwent 6 sessions: three with a real dog and three with a cuddly toy named ‘Leo’ that was filled with a water bottle to mimic the temperature and weight of a real dog. Each session was split into 5 sections; with each section, the contact between the participant and the dog or cuddly toy was increased.

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As suspected, the researchers measured greater activity in the prefrontal cortex when participants were interacting with real dogs than when they were interacting with the cuddly toy. Additionally, prefrontal activity was greatest when participants were petting the dog, the highest level of contact, which remained even after the dog was no longer present. Prefrontal activity also increased with each interaction with the real dog; no matter how many times participants interacted with the cuddly toy, brain activity remained the same. This indicates that the response might be related to familiarity or social bonding, but further experiments are needed to confirm this.

The authors reported, “The present study demonstrates that prefrontal brain activity in healthy subjects increased with a rise in interactional closeness with a dog or a plush animal, but especially in contact with the dog the activation is stronger. This indicates that interactions with a dog might activate more attentional processes and elicit stronger emotional arousal than comparable nonliving stimuli.”

This study provides insight into the neurological basis of animal-assisted clinal therapies and could be important in the implementation of dogs in certain therapeutics. The increased activity in the emotional regulation and social interaction part of the brain validates the work of therapy dog organizations and may help to boost their funding and reach.

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