Dogs have brain areas dedicated to dealing with voice and acoustic emotional cues, just like humans do, according to a first of its kind study.
The first study to compare brain function between humans and any nonprimate animal found that dogs have dedicated voice areas in their brains, just as people do.
Dog brains, like those of people, are also sensitive to acoustic cues of emotion, researchers said. The findings suggest that voice areas evolved at least 100 million years ago, the age of the last common ancestor of humans and dogs.
“Dogs and humans share a similar social environment,” said Attila Andics of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary. “Our findings suggest that they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species,” Andics said.
Andics and his colleagues trained 11 dogs to lay motionless in an fMRI brain scanner. That made it possible to run the same neuroimaging experiment on both dog and human participants – something that had never been done before.
They captured both dogs’ and humans’ brain activities while the subjects listened to nearly 200 dog and human sounds, ranging from whining or crying to playful barking or laughing.
The images showed that dog and human brains include voice areas in similar locations. Not surprisingly, the voice area of dogs responds more strongly to other dogs while that of humans responds more strongly to other humans. The researchers also noted striking similarities in the ways the dog and human brains process emotionally loaded sounds.
In both species, an area near the primary auditory cortex lit up more with happy sounds than unhappy ones. Andics said they were most struck by the common response to emotion across species.
There were some differences, too: in dogs, 48 per cent of all sound-sensitive brain regions respond more strongly to sounds other than voices. That’s in contrast to humans, in which only 3 per cent of sound-sensitive brain regions show greater response to nonvocal versus vocal sounds. The study is the first step toward understanding how it is that dogs can be so remarkably good at tuning into the feelings of their human owners. The study is published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.