Tag: Current Biology

Dogs and humans – fascinating research.

Serendipity, or just coincidence?

Yesterday, I published a post and called it Dogs and wolves – fascinating research.  Then blow me down in yesterday’s online BBC News, there was an article headlined: Dogs’ brain scans reveal vocal responses  This is how it opened.

Dogs’ brain scans reveal vocal responses

By Rebecca Morelle, Science reporter, BBC World Service

Pet dogs took part in the MRI scanning study.
Pet dogs took part in the MRI scanning study.

Devoted dog owners often claim that their pets understand them. A new study suggests they could be right.

By placing dogs in an MRI scanner, researchers from Hungary found that the canine brain reacts to voices in the same way that the human brain does.

Emotionally charged sounds, such as crying or laughter, also prompted similar responses, perhaps explaining why dogs are attuned to human emotions.

The work is published in the journal Current Biology.

Lead author Attila Andics, from the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, said: “We think dogs and humans have a very similar mechanism to process emotional information.”

Eleven pet dogs took part in the study; training them took some time.

Going across to that Current Biology link, one reads:

Summary

During the approximately 18–32 thousand years of domestication [1], dogs and humans have shared a similar social environment [2]. Dog and human vocalizations are thus familiar and relevant to both species [3], although they belong to evolutionarily distant taxa, as their lineages split approximately 90–100 million years ago [4]. In this first comparative neuroimaging study of a nonprimate and a primate species, we made use of this special combination of shared environment and evolutionary distance. We presented dogs and humans with the same set of vocal and nonvocal stimuli to search for functionally analogous voice-sensitive cortical regions. We demonstrate that voice areas exist in dogs and that they show a similar pattern to anterior temporal voice areas in humans. Our findings also reveal that sensitivity to vocal emotional valence cues engages similarly located nonprimary auditory regions in dogs and humans. Although parallel evolution cannot be excluded, our findings suggest that voice areas may have a more ancient evolutionary origin than previously known.

Back to the BBC news item.

The canine brain reacted to voices in the same way that the human brain does.
The canine brain reacted to voices in the same way that the human brain does.

“There were 12 sessions of preparatory training, then seven sessions in the scanner room, then these dogs were able to lie motionless for as long as eight minutes. Once they were trained, they were so happy, I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it.”

For comparison, the team looked at the brains of 22 human volunteers in the same MRI scanners.

The scientists played the people and pooches 200 different sounds, ranging from environmental noises, such as car sounds and whistles, to human sounds (but not words) and dog vocalisations.

The researchers found that a similar region – the temporal pole, which is the most anterior part of the temporal lobe – was activated when both the animals and people heard human voices.

“We do know there are voice areas in humans, areas that respond more strongly to human sounds that any other types of sounds,” Dr Andics explained.

“The location (of the activity) in the dog brain is very similar to where we found it in the human brain. The fact that we found these areas exist at all in the dog brain at all is a surprise – it is the first time we have seen this in a non-primate.”

Emotional sounds, such as crying and laughter also had a similar pattern of activity, with an area near the primary auditory cortex lighting up in dogs and humans.

Likewise, emotionally charged dog vocalisations – such as whimpering or angry barking – also caused a similar reaction in all volunteers,

Dr Andics said: “We know very well that dogs are very good at tuning into the feelings of their owners, and we know a good dog owner can detect emotional changes in his dog – but we now begin to understand why this can be.”

However, while the dogs responded to the human voice, their reactions were far stronger when it came to canine sounds.

They also seemed less able to distinguish between environmental sounds and vocal noises compared with humans.

About half of the whole auditory cortex lit up in dogs when listening to these noises, compared with 3% of the same area in humans.

Commenting on the research, Prof Sophie Scott, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, said: “Finding something like this in a primate brain isn’t too surprising – but it is quite something to demonstrate it in dogs.

“Dogs are a very interesting animal to look at – we have selected for a lot of traits in dogs that have made them very amenable to humans. Some studies have show they understand a lot of words and they understand intentionality – pointing.”

But she added: “It would be interesting to see the animal’s response to words rather than just sounds. When we cry and laugh, they are much more like animal calls and this might be causing this response.

For the full report, as it was posted on the BBC website, click here.

Plus, do watch this five-minute video abstract.

Published on Feb 20, 2014

The video presents the first study to compare brain function between humans and any non-primate animal. Scientists at MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary found that dogs and humans use similar neural mechanisms to process social information in voices. The fact that dogs can be trained to lie motionless during fMRI tests opens up the space for a new branch of comparative neuroscience.

Paper in Current Biology: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014….

Group home page: http://mta-etologia.elte.hu/

The first study to compare brain function between humans and any non-primate animal shows 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, according to a study in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.

The findings suggest that voice areas evolved at least 100 million years ago, the age of the last common ancestor of humans and dogs, the researchers say. It also offers new insight into humans’ unique connection with our best friends in the animal kingdom, perhaps explaining how our two species have lived and worked together so effectively for tens of thousands of years.

“Our findings suggest that dogs and humans not only share a similar social environment, but they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information,” said Atilla Andics of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary. “This may help the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species.”

Andics and his colleagues trained eleven dogs to lay motionless in an fMRI brain scanner. That made it possible to run the very same neuroimaging experiment on dog and human participants — something that had never been done before. They captured both dogs’ and humans’ brain activities while they listened to dog and human sounds, ranging from whining or crying to playful barking or laughing.

The images show 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 brain processes 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 percent of all sound-sensitive brain regions respond more strongly to sounds other than voices. That’s in contrast to humans, in which only three percent of sound-sensitive brain regions show greater response to non-vocal versus vocal sounds.

The study is the first step to understanding how it is that dogs can be so remarkably good at tuning into the feelings of their human owners. “This method offers a totally new way of looking at neural processing in dogs,” Andics said. “At last we begin to understand how our best friend is looking at us and navigating in our social environment.”

Smart animals!

It’s not just dogs who can read us so well.

Millions of dog owners know how well their animals can read us humans; it’s been mentioned on Learning from Dogs many times before.

Try elephants.

There was a fascinating article on the BBC news website a few weeks ago that went on to explain:

10 October 2013

Elephants ‘understand human gesture’

By Victoria GillScience reporter, BBC News
African elephants have demonstrated what appears to be an instinctive understanding of human gestures, according to UK scientists. In a series of tests, researcher Ann Smet, of the University of St Andrews, offered the animals a choice between two identical buckets, then pointed at the one containing a hidden treat.

From the first trial, the elephants chose the correct bucket.

The results are published in the journal Current Biology.

The item included a short video that I am delighted to say is on YouTube.  Here it is:

Published on Oct 10, 2013

African elephants have demonstrated what appears to be an instinctive understanding of human gestures, according to UK scientists.

In a series of tests, researcher Ann Smet, of the University of St Andrews, offered the animals a choice between two identical buckets, then pointed at the one containing a hidden treat.

From the first trial, the elephants chose the correct bucket.

The results are published in the journal Current Biology.

The scientists worked with captive elephants at a lodge in Zimbabwe.

Prof Richard Byrne, a co-author on the research, said the elephants had been rescued from culling operations and trained for riding.

“They specifically train the elephants to respond to vocal cues. They don’t use any gestures at all,” said Prof Byrne.

“The idea is that the handler can walk behind the elephant and just tell it what to do with words.”

Despite this, the animals seemed to grasp the meaning of pointing from the outset.

Ms Smet added that she had been impressed by the animals’ apparently innate understanding of the gesture.

“Of course we had hoped that the elephants would be able to learn to follow human pointing, or we wouldn’t have done the experiment in the first place,” she said.

“But it was really surprising that they didn’t seem to have to learn anything.

“It seems that understanding pointing is an ability elephants just possess naturally and they are cognitively much more like us than has been realised.”

Prof Byrne said studying elephants helped build a map of part of the evolutionary tree that is very distant from humans.

“They’re so unrelated to us,” he told BBC News. “So if we find human-like abilities in an animal like an elephant, that hasn’t shared a common ancestor with people for more than 100 million years , we can be pretty sure that it’s evolved completely separately, by what’s called convergent evolution.”

The researchers said their findings might explain how elephants have successfully been tamed and have “historically had a close bond with humans, in spite of being potentially dangerous and unmanageable due to their great size”.

But the scientists added the results could be a hint that the animals gesture to one another in the wild with their “highly controllable trunks”.

Ms Smet told BBC News: “The next step [in our research] is to test whether when an elephant extends its trunk upwards and outwards – as they regularly do, such as when detecting a predator, this functions as a point.”

That BBC article goes on to highlight:

Prof Byrne said studying elephants helped build a map of part of the evolutionary tree that is very distant from humans.

“They’re so unrelated to us,” he told BBC News. “So if we find human-like abilities in an animal like an elephant, that hasn’t shared a common ancestor with people for more than 100 million years , we can be pretty sure that it’s evolved completely separately, by what’s called convergent evolution.”

The researchers said their findings might explain how elephants have successfully been tamed and have “historically had a close bond with humans, in spite of being potentially dangerous and unmanageable due to their great size”.

But the scientists added the results could be a hint that the animals gesture to one another in the wild with their “highly controllable trunks”.

Ms Smet told BBC News: “The next step [in our research] is to test whether when an elephant extends its trunk upwards and outwards – as they regularly do, such as when detecting a predator, this functions as a point.”

Now just where did I pack my old trunk.

Real meaning in a wolf’s howl.

Staying with the theme of communication.

I have often noticed how ideas come along and are then reinforced by other materials and comments.  This struck me (again) as follows. In my post about the fabulous, loving bond between Jeff Guidry and his eagle Freedom one of the comments was from Patrice Ayme, and I quote:

Birds have completely different brains. Still, the smartest birds are more clever than most primates. And many parrots speak (although we have not learned their language yet).

Then going on to add:

Parrot language studies have progressed enough to tell us that there is something huge going on. They apparently use names, as dolphins do.

Certainly Jean would verify the amount of talking that goes on between our two budgerigars here at home!

Mr. Green and Mr. Blu!
Mr. Green and Mr. Blu!

Then in yesterday’s post The knowing of dogs, I referred to research that indicated that empathy between those that we know and trust, (a) can be measured, and (b) that “our minds are partly defined by their intersections with other minds.”  I went on in that post to speculate that maybe dogs ‘reading’ the minds of humans that they know and trust wasn’t so far-fetched.

Then along comes this from ScienceDaily:

Wolves Howl Because They Care: Social Relationship Can Explain Variation in Vocal Production

Aug. 22, 2013 — When a member of the wolf pack leaves the group, the howling by those left behind isn’t a reflection of stress but of the quality of their relationships. So say researchers based on a study of nine wolves from two packs living at Austria’s Wolf Science Center that appears in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, on August 22.

The findings shed important light on the degree to which animal vocal production can be considered as voluntary, the researchers say.

“Our results suggest the social relationship can explain more of the variation we see in howling behavior than the emotional state of the wolf,” says Friederike Range of the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. “This suggests that wolves, to a certain extent, may be able to use their vocalizations in a flexible way.”

Scientists have known very little about why animals make the sounds that they do. Are they uncontrollable emotional responses? Or do animals have the ability to change those vocalizations based on their own understanding of the social context?

At the Wolf Science Center, human handlers typically take individual wolves out for walks on a leash, one at a time. On those occasions, they knew, the remaining pack mates always howl.

To better understand why, Range and her colleagues measured the wolves’ stress hormone levels. They also collected information on the wolves’ dominance status in the pack and their preferred partners. As they took individual wolves out for long walks, they recorded the reactions of each of their pack mates.

Those observations show that wolves howl more when a wolf they have a better relationship with leaves the group and when that individual is of high social rank. The amount of howling did not correspond to higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

“Our data suggest that howling is not a simple stress response to being separated from close associates but instead may be used more flexibly to maintain contact and perhaps to aid in reuniting with allies,” Range says.

For those that want to read the original research paper then it is available over at Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.

Wolf Howling Is Mediated by Relationship Quality Rather Than Underlying Emotional Stress

Authors

Francesco MazziniSimon W. TownsendZsófia VirányiFriederike Range

  • Highlights
  • We investigated the influence of social and physiological factors on wolf howling
  • Wolves howl more to keep contact with affiliated partners and with pack leaders
  • Howling is mediated by the social relationship not cortisol level of the howlers
  • This pattern indicates that wolves have some voluntary control of their howling

Summary

While considerable research has addressed the function of animal vocalizations, the proximate mechanisms driving call production remain surprisingly unclear. Vocalizations may be driven by emotions and the physiological state evoked by changes in the social-ecological environment [1,2], or animals may have more control over their vocalizations, using them in flexible ways mediated by the animal’s understanding of its surrounding social world [3,4]. While both explanations are plausible and neither excludes the other, to date no study has attempted to experimentally investigate the influence of both emotional and cognitive factors on animal vocal usage. We aimed to disentangle the relative contribution of both mechanisms by examining howling in captive wolves. Using a separation experiment and by measuring cortisol levels, we specifically investigated whether howling is a physiological stress response to group fragmentation [5] and whether it is driven by social factors, particularly relationship quality [6,7]. Results showed that relationship quality between the howler and the leaving individual better predicted howling than did the current physiological state. Our findings shed important light on the degree to which animal vocal production can be considered as voluntary.

So, don’t know about you, but it all seems to be suggesting how little we know about how animals communicate with the world around them.