A CONVERSATION WITH THE TRAILBLAZER OF MODERN CANINE NEUROSCIENCE

by Tori Huggins
3/24/2021, Article

Emory University is home to one of the most well known canine neuroscientists of the modern era. Professor Gregory Berns, a member of the Emory community since 1998, has been leading the surge towards a complete understanding of the canine brain through the “Dog Project,” which examines conscious canine brains through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning. I recently spoke to Dr. Berns about a few aspects of his research: the history of the “Dog Project,” the current focus in his laboratory and his future plans for the project. 

The “Dog Project” began almost ten years ago in 2011. Dr. Berns recounts that he had been doing functional MRI research in humans for fifteen to twenty years, observing decision making and risk and reward processing. “I had this idea,” recalled Berns, “wouldn’t it be fun to see if I could teach my dog to go in the scanner to see what she’s thinking?” While he was most likely not the first person to have such an idea, he was the first person to successfully figure out how to do it. While Professor Berns had no initial expectations for his findings, the “Dog Project” quickly turned into one of the most informative canine neuroscience projects of our time. Berns believes that many important breakthrough scientific findings, including his own project, are done backwards from the typical scientific method. “I think the scientific method comes after your intuition,” he elaborates, recalling that he had “no specific expectations, no particularly strong hypotheses, just curiosity and exploration.” 

One of the most interesting aspects of the “Dog Project” is the preparation and training of the dogs who go into the MRI scanner. This process includes dog selection, basic training and MRI training. Berns states that one of the biggest differences between the current preparation for the project compared to when the project first beganis the high standard of selection for both the dogs and the owners. He believes that the selection process is “the key for success.” The project currently uses a tryout process which looks for basic off-leash obedience and attempts to filter out dogs with novel stimuli anxiety. The next step in this process is giving owners a head coil, a device which the  dog will be trained to place their head into and hold still as training for an MRI scan. The dogs and owners practice with the head coil at home and then come in every two weeks for an MRI Class at the project’s training facility. MRI tasks gradually build in complexity and the dogs are eventually ready to be scanned. Professor Berns states that this training process takes around three to four months on average. This process serves as a huge investment into the project, especially considering that the dogs and owners in the “Dog Project” are volunteers. 

COVID-19 has been a huge challenge for the project, as much of the training and all of the scanning was done in person before March 2020. Professor Berns, however, continued the project with a group he refers to as “Team Corona,”a group of dogs and owners that have completed the majority of their training via Zoom. Around half of the dogs completed their training and the project is now aimed at examining canine perception. Berns states that visual perception is the primary focus of the project at the moment, following a previous focus on olfactory perception. Within this category, Berns states that he is focusing on attention tracking and visual cues, especially through the use of video stimuli. Human MRI scanning often uses video stimuli and Berns explains that much of his research is currently aimed at comparing human and canine brains. Examples of this comparative research are numerity or examining whether dogs understand quantity like humans do and the investigation into the neural responses of dogs to video objects compared to in-person objects. 

I asked Professor Berns whether there were any specific findings from the “Dog Project” that had surprised him personally. “The thing that is probably the most impressive to me,” he explains, “is how different all the dogs are from each other. There is a great deal of variability we see between the dogs. Dogs are individuals.” Berns also clarified that the variability is greater than simple breed differences. These findings are consistent with research with the human brain and the associated levels of variation in brain imaging. 

I then asked Professor Berns about his future directions with the “Dog Project.” His work at the moment is focused on combining artificial intelligence with brain scanning and eventually creating a canine brain decoder to understand to a fuller extent how dogs process the world. Professor Berns’ long term goal is to map the entire dog brain, similar to how neuroscientists are currently attempting to map the entire human brain. 

Professor Berns concluded the interview by offering some advice to undergraduates looking to pursue a career in research: “My advice is to get into a lab as soon as you can.” He recognizes that while there is limited availability of undergraduate research positions, there are specific things that students can do to increase their chances of being selected to join a laboratory. “What we do [in my laboratory] is highly quantitative and so I’m looking for people with computer skills.” Berns continues by advising that “if you are looking to get into someone’s lab, do your homework. Because we all get so many inquiries, I tend to hit delete if someone sends me one paragraph saying ‘I’m interested in dog research.’” His advice is to go on Google Scholar, look at the most recent publications, and then reach out and mention the publications of the laboratory. “That will get any [principal investigator’s] attention.” 

Tori Huggins (22C) is a psychology and sociology major from Winston Salem, North Carolina. In addition to being a EURJ special features writer, she is a member of Emory’s varsity women’s basketball team, a member of the Emory’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee, a research assistant in the Hamann Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, a fitness supervisor in the Woodruff Physical Education Center and a youth mentor in the Destined for Greatness Youth Outreach Program. In her free time, she enjoys spending time on the Beltline, rewatching the Office and visiting ChickfilA.