Dogs have been called man's (and woman's) best friend, and a new brain-imaging study of dogs indicates one reason why: There are striking similarities in how dogs and humans -- and, perhaps, a number of other mammals -- process voice and emotion.
According to Wired, dogs, like humans, may have brain systems that function similarly in that they are devoted to understanding and processing vocal sounds, and are also sensitive to the emotional content of voices:
These systems have not previously been described in dogs or any non-primate species, and the new findings offer an intriguing neurobiological glimpse into the richness of our particular corner of the animal kingdom.
"What makes us really excited now is that we've discovered these voice areas in the dog brain," said comparative ethologist Attila Andics of Hungary's Eotvos Lorand University, the lead author of the study published Feb. 20 in Current Biology. "It's not only dogs and humans. We probably share this function with many other mammals."
Processing vocal sounds and emotion 'is fundamental to who they are'
That said, human and dogs last shared a common ancestor more than 100 million years ago, say researchers. Therefore, they conclude, if a voice-attuned region could be found in dogs as well, the trait probably runs deeply in shared biology between the two species.
In order to flesh out the possibility, Andics and research teammates trained a half-dozen golden retrievers and five border collies to lay completely still inside a scanner in order to allow scientists to collect fMRI scans of their brains. The scans are able to measure blood flow, which is widely believed to be a good indicator of neural activity. The training process took months, the Los Angeles Times reported, but the dogs retained the knowledge for many months as well.
"They just love it; they can't wait to be the next," Andics told the Times. "I wouldn't believe it if I didn't see it myself."