Auburn researchers using ‘awake-dog’ MRI scanning to seek neural marker that would predict a dog’s detection ability

Published: 01/13/2016

By: Charles Martin

A dog's remarkable nose has helped mankind for ages, from the hunting of game animals to more recently sniffing out explosives and contraband.

However, the field of neuroscience knows very little about how the canine brain works, particularly when it is using the sense of smell. Auburn University researchers are shedding light on this aspect through functional MRI brain scans of awake, non-anesthetized dogs.

"We are the first group in the world to use functional MRI of awake dogs to study how their brains process odorant information," said Assistant Professor Gopikrishna "Gopi" Deshpande of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.

"This lets us see their brains in action when they are smelling odors. Best of all, the dogs don't have to be anesthetized."

Auburn's College of Veterinary Medicine developed the unique awake-dog training system that Deshpande is using in his research to establish an MRI baseline test, which would determine a dog's ability to become a good detector before it goes through training.

"The dogs are not restrained in any way," said Paul Waggoner, co- director of Canine Performance Sciences in the veterinary college. "We trained them to get up on the scanner; place their head in the correct position; and then remain still while the scanning occurs. We're really the first ones to have dogs scanned in this awake fashion. Previously dogs had to be scanned while anesthetized."

Deshpande's project, "Functional Imaging for Developing Outstanding Service Dogs," is being conducted in collaboration with the iK9 company, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Department of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts.

Auburn and iK9 are using a $1 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, to do the study. iK9, which has an office in the Auburn Research Park, is providing the dogs and training while Auburn researchers conduct the MRI scans at Auburn's Magnetic Resonance Imaging Research Center.

"The dogs are undergoing the awake-dog MRI brain scans before and after they are trained so we can look for baseline neural features that would predict the dogs' future detection performance," Deshpande said. "This would enable us to scan a prospective dog's brain and determine the likelihood of its success."

Forty dogs are undergoing the scans and training during the two-year project.

"After a dog gets its initial scan, we train that dog to be a detection dog," iK9 President Roland Beason said. "After four to six weeks, we scan it again. At two other time points we will again scan the dog."

During the MRI scanning, various odors are presented to the dog's nose, with the idea that researchers can determine a specific neural marker in the brain image—to determine if a dog has the makings of a detector dog.

Current methods of finding and training suitable dogs are time consuming and costly for agencies around the globe.

"If we can pinpoint a specific neural marker on the scan, this could result in tremendous financial savings for the government and private companies since they would not use training resources on unsuitable dogs," said Deshpande, who adds that cost of training a highly specialized detector dog can cost up to $30,000.

The researchers hope their findings will result in a test that can used by agencies nationwide. "Auburn is known around the world for its canine programs," Deshpande said. "We have an excellent team working on this project."

Last updated: 02/12/2016

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