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MRI Persuades Researcher Dogs Are People

October 17, 2013
Written by: , Filed in: Medical Ethics, Neuroradiology
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“Dogs are people, too,” says Gregory Berns, PhD, MD. How does he know? Because of MRI.

His MRI research has led him to conclude that dogs should be granted at least limited legal rights of personhood. He makes that case in an about-to-be-published book titled How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.

Dr. Berns is distinguished professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University in Atlanta. For two years, he has used functional MRI to study dogs’ brains, as we reported in May 2012. He trains dogs to hold still in an MRI scanner and wear earmuffs to reduce the noise, as shown in this video.

In an opinion piece published October 5 in the New York Times, Dr. Berns wrote that he and his colleagues have scanned the brains of a dozen dogs. “Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain,” he wrote, “we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.”

In humans, he wrote, the caudate activates in anticipation of things we enjoy. In dogs, caudate activity increases in response to hand signals indicating food, to the smells of familiar humans, and to the return of an owner who had stepped out of view. “Do these findings prove that dogs love us?” Dr. Berns wrote. “Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.”

He continued:

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.

Such a finding would imply, Dr. Berns wrote, that “dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.”

He suggested “a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions.”

In the case of dogs, I’m personally acquainted with at least one cat that would strenuously disagree, despite my own dog’s repeated attempts to make friends. I also know a LOT of people who would say, “Of course dogs love us. You don’t need MRI to know that.” But it’s a very long leap from similarities in dog and human caudate function to an equivalency in their legal status.

Could a class-action suit target pet “owners” who have subjected their dogs to involuntary neutering? Want to bet that at least a few lawyers haven’t thought about it?

Related CME seminar (up to 29 AMA PRA Category 1 credits™): Neuroradiology Review

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