Dogs do it all for the military: sniff for bombs, detect narcotics and rescue hapless humans. But to recruit the best canine squadmates, the Pentagon’s blue-sky researchers are working on a plan to scan their brains — and figure out how dogs think. Belly rubs won’t cut it anymore.
According to a new research solicitation from Darpa, the project — adorably called FIDOS, for “Functional Imaging to Develop Outstanding Service-Dogs” — touts the idea of using magnetic image resonators (or MRIs) to “optimize the selection of ideal service dogs” by scanning their brains to find the smartest candidates. “Real-time neural feedback” will optimize canine training. That adds up to military pooches trained better, faster and — in theory — at a lower cost than current training methods of $20,000, using the old-fashioned methods of discipline-and-reward.
Though it’s still very much in the research stage, the plan owes many of its underpinnings to several recent discoveries about the brains of our canine friends.
Last year, Emory University neuroscientist Greg Berns and his colleagues trained dogs to sit unrestrained inside an MRI machine, shown hand signals associated with a food reward, and then scanned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers noticed increased brain activity in the dogs’ ventral caudate, a region of the brain associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine.
In their study, published last April in Public Library of Science One, Berns and his colleagues concluded that the activity was due to a “trained association to a food reward; however, it is also possible that some component of social reward contributes to the response.” Anyone who’s ever held out a piece of chicken to a well-behaved pup already knows that dogs like getting fed when they’re good. And dogs are highly social animals, closely adapted to human behavior given a shared evolutionary history. But the Emory University team was the first to observe this specific brain activityusing MRIs.
Yes, it’s true. See: http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2013/01/dog-brains/