adorable playmates

By scanning the brains of mothers who are dog owners as well, researchers prove that babies and pets excite alike responses in brain areas connected to emotion and reward. The study, published in PLOS ONE this week, indicate that dog owners actually do love their pups like their babies.

Let’s find out how closely does the human-pet relationship mirror the parent-child bond? Massachusetts General Hospital’s Lori Palley and Luke Stoeckel investigated differences in how specific brain structures are activated when women looked at images of their children and of their dogs. ‘There is an upsurge in the levels of neurohormones like oxytocin — which is involved in pair-bonding and maternal attachment — following interaction with pets, and latest brain imaging technologies are helping us discern the neurobiological basis of the relationship, which is exciting,’ Palley says in a news release.

The team hired 16 women with minimum one child aged two to 10 and one pet dog who has been living with the family since at least two years. Participants answered different questionnaires asking about their relationships with their kid and their puppy, who were both snapped in their own homes.

Later researchers employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — that measures brain activity based on blood flow and oxygen levels – to study the brains of the women as they looked at pictures of their children and their dogs. The women were also shown photos of unfamiliar children and dogs. Each woman then rated images based on attributes such as pleasantness and excitement.

The team discovered visible similarities and differences in how dissimilar regions reacted. Brain regions connected to emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing, and social interaction all showed escalated activity when they looked at either their own child or dog, but not with unfamiliar kids and canines.

The substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area — two midbrain regions critical to bond formations – activated solely in response to pictures of their children. Whereas, the fusiform gyrus, that is connected to functions like facial recognition, showed greater response to puppy pics than baby photos. Further, the nucleus accumbens, that were involved in pair-bonding in the preliminary human and animal studies, displayed greater deactivation when mothers looked at pictures of their dogs — instead of their children. Which came as a surprise!

‘We feel the greater response of the fusiform gyrus to images of contributors’ dogs may show the increased dependence on visual than verbal cues in human-animal communications,’ Stoeckel opines. Humans basically communicate through language, rather than the facial cues dogs might look for. The differences in activation may indicate the differing evolutionary course and function of these relationships.

As per Stoeckel it looks like there is a common brain network critical for pair-bond formation and maintenance, that’s switched on in mothers looking at images of their babies, furry and otherwise.