Interactions with a dog lead to higher and higher levels of prefrontal brain activity

Researchers led by Rahel Marti of the University of Basel in Switzerland report that looking, smelling and touching real dogs leads to increasingly higher levels of activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Posted in PLOS ONE on October 5, the study shows that this effect persists after the dogs disappear, but subsides when the real dogs are replaced by stuffed animals. The findings have implications for animal-assisted clinical therapy.

Because interacting with animals, particularly dogs, is known to help people cope with stress and depression, researchers believe that better understanding the associated brain activity could help clinicians conceive. improved systems for animal-assisted therapy. The prefrontal cortex might be particularly relevant because it helps regulate and process social and emotional interactions.

In the study, activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex was measured noninvasively with infrared neuroimaging technology as 19 men and women each stared at a dog, lay with the same dog against their legs, or pet the dog. Each of these conditions was also performed with Leo, a stuffed lion with fur that was filled with a water bottle to match the dogs temperature and weight.

The results showed that prefrontal brain activity was greater when participants interacted with the real dogs, and that this difference was greatest for petting, which was the most interactive condition. Another key difference was that prefrontal brain activity increased each time people interacted with the real dog. This was not observed with successive interactions with the stuffed lion, indicating that the response could be related to familiarity or social connection.

Future studies will be needed to examine in detail the issue of familiarity and whether petting animals can trigger a similar increase in prefrontal brain activity in patients with social-emotional deficits.

The authors add: “The present study demonstrates that prefrontal brain activity in healthy subjects increased with increased interactional proximity to a dog or stuffed animal, but especially when in contact with the dog, the activation is stronger. This indicates that interactions with a dog might activate more attentional processes and elicit stronger emotional arousal than comparable non-living stimuli. »


Journal reference:

Martin, R. et al. (2022) Effects of contact with a dog on prefrontal brain activity: a controlled trial. PLOS ONE.