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Human and Dogs Process Voices Similarly, Study Reports

Update Date: Feb 22, 2014 10:43 AM EST

Many pet owners will say that they have a close relationship with their four-legged companions. Some might even go as far to say that their dogs understand their pain, and now, researchers are reporting that this understanding might hold some truth. In a new study, researchers set out to examine this relationship between humans and canines. The study, which is the first ever to compare the brain functions of humans and dogs, found that dogs have dedicated "voice areas" in their brains that make them sensitive to different vocal cues.

"Dogs and humans share a similar social environment," said Attila Andics of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary. "Our findings suggest that they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species."

The researchers took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of 11 dogs that were tried to sit still in the machines. During the imaging process, the dogs listed to almost 200 dog and human sounds. The sounds ranged from sad, such as crying and whining, to playful, such as laughing. They took fMRIs of 22 human volunteers as well. The researchers compared the dogs' brain responses to the humans'. They found that both humans and dogs had voice areas in their brains that were located in similar areas.

"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," Andics said according to BBC News.

Aside from location of these voice areas, the researchers found that dog and human brains appear to be able to process sounds that were emotionally charged. The researchers found that in dogs and humans, an area in the brain by the primary auditory cortex lit up more often when they heard happy sounds as opposed to sad ones. Despite these similarities, the researchers did find one huge difference. For dogs, the researchers found that 48 percent of their sound-sensitive areas in their brains responded to noises other than the human voice. In humans, that percentage was three. The researchers believe that this kind of research using brain scanners could help researchers better understand dogs.

"This method offers a totally new way of investigating neural processing in dogs," Andics said in the press release. "At last we begin to understand how our best friend is looking at us and navigating in our social environment."

The study, "Voice-sensitive regions in the dog and human brain are revealed by comparative fMRI," was published in Current Biology.

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