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In the thousands of years we’ve lived with dogs, we’ve transformed them from fearsome wolves to fluffy, tail-wagging Frisbee catchers that range in size from tiny pomeranians to towering great Danes. Now, a new study of dogs’ brain scans suggests our impact on our canine pals has been even more profound: We’ve changed the very structure of their brains.
“This is really exciting new work,” says Daniel Horschler, a comparative psychologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson who has studied the evolution of dog brains but who was not involved with the current work. “Dogs haven’t really been studied in this way before.”
Research - Erin - Hecht - Harvard - University
To conduct the research, Erin Hecht, a Harvard University neuroscientist (and the caretaker of two incredibly hyper Australian shepherds), and her colleagues assembled a library of MRI brain scans from 62 purebred dogs from 33 different breeds. As soon as she saw the images lined up next to each other, “You could just see the results staring at you,” she says. The dogs, which included bichon frises, Labrador retrievers, and more, had a variety of head shapes and sizes. But neither of those things alone could explain the variation in the layout of the dogs’ brains.
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Hecht and her team identified six networks of brain regions that tended to be bigger or smaller from dog to dog, and that varied in tandem with each other. The pattern led Hecht to think these regions were probably working together in different behaviors. She wondered whether the varying layouts might be due to behavioral differences between breeds. Beagles can sniff out cancerous tumors in humans and let doctors know, for example, and a border collie can...
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