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Dog cognition expert and best-selling author to speak at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

May 1, 2017

Gregory S. Berns, M.D./Ph.D.

Gregory S. Berns, M.D./Ph.D., with his dog, Callie.
Gregory S. Berns will speak about canine cognition at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute on May 9. He's trained more than 80 dogs to sit still in the MRI, and he started with his own dog, Callie, pictured here with Berns. (Image courtesy of Emory University/Bryan Meltz)

Dogs are man’s best friends, and Gregory S. Berns has the canine brain scans to prove it.

The New York Times best-selling author and distinguished professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University will discuss his research on canine cognition at 5:30 p.m. on May 9 in a talk titled, “What It’s Like to Be a Dog: Using MRI to See How Dogs Think.”

Part of the Eric Shullman Distinguished Public Lecture Series, the presentation will take place at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research institute in Roanoke, Virginia.

“My colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an MRI scanner — completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us as humans,” Berns wrote in The New York Times’ Sunday Review in October of 2013. “Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: Dogs are people, too.”

Since the dog brain-imaging project began in 2012, Berns and his team have trained more than 80 dogs to sit still in MRI scanners. The dogs can lie perfectly still, with their chins on a custom-made rest to keep their heads at the correct angle. They also wear ear protection in the loud MRI machines.

The dogs are never sedated, and they’re volunteers, so, if they don’t want to go into the MRI, they’re not forced.

The first dog trained was Callie, Berns’ own dog, a terrier mix rescued from the pound. He trained her in an MRI simulator he built in his living room.

From the first scans in 2012 to now, Berns and his team have found evidence that dogs not only recognize familiar scents and faces, but that the stimuli produce activity in the brain’s caudate nucleus, which is a part of the brain strongly associated with emotions and preferences in people.

Caudate activity, according to Berns, implies that dogs can and do experience emotions of love and attachment to their human families.

And it’s not just because the humans feed them, Berns said.

“By comparing the relative amounts of activity, we can deduce how much of the dog’s motivation is due to food and how much is due to the social interaction with a human,” Berns said in an interview with The Bark, a popular magazine on dog culture. “We’re finding strong evidence that it is not just about food.”

Berns and his team also found that dogs prefer praise to food. They published those results in the journal, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

His current research continues to explore decision-making in dogs and focuses on predicting the success of service dogs.

“Greg Berns is among the foremost out-of-the-box innovators in cognitive neuroscience. As a trained psychiatrist with additional doctoral training in biomedical engineering and a bold intellectual curiosity, he brings a powerful perspective and creativity to neuroscience,” said Michael J. Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology and the executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “His work in neuroeconomics and the neuroscience of decision-making is groundbreaking. His recent contributions to extend this level of inquiry to another species, particularly one that co-evolved a deep social bond with humans, promises not only to provide insights into the minds of canines but also to open doors into understanding the human social brain in an ecologically meaningful evolutionary context.”

Berns, who also directs the Center for Neuropolicy and Facility for Education and Research In Neuroscience at Emory University, has published three books. His fourth book, “What It’s Like to Be A Dog,” will be published in September.

Before joining Emory University, Berns worked as the supervising physician for the Comprehensive Substance Abuse Services of Westmoreland County in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.

Berns completed his undergraduate degree in physics at Princeton University before earning a doctoral degree in biomedical engineering from the University of California, Davis. He then earned his medical degree from the University of California, San Diego. 

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