What can dogs, dolphins and sea lions teach us about the human brain? More than you might think, according to research by Peter Cook, a psychology professor at New College of Florida.
"Humans aren't the only big-brained animals that we can get to engage in careful neurobehavioral research," Cook said.
Traditionally, research on animal brains has been conducted on rodents, but Cook is interested in how researching the neurological patterns of other mammals can relate to humans and the ways in which human behavior is studied in the future.
Cook presented his research on brain function and behavior in non-human animals at Whitman College on Oct. 16. His lecture, "Studying Animal Brain and Behavior Outside the Box: Epileptic Sea Lions, fMRI Dogs, Dead Dolphins, and Extinct Marsupials," was made possible through the Robert and Mabel Groseclose Endowed Lecture Fund and the psychology department.
Cook focused on three topics: functional brain imaging in dogs, opportunistic dead brain network imaging in dolphins and other species, and neurobehavioral assessments of wild sea lions.
The study of wild sea lions offered results showing that humans and wild sea lions share similarities in the hippocampal, a small region of the brain that forms part of the limbic system and is primarily associated with memory and spatial navigation. Also, sea lions and humans experience similar effects of hippocampal epilepsy.
"Sea lions may serve as a very good model for examining related phenomena in humans," Cook said.
Through his research on dogs, Cook learned that dogs display a good amount of neurobiological specialization for social processing. Dogs appear to find social interaction with humans pleasing, there's evidence dogs are able to distinguish various human and dog faces, and they pay attention to interactions between humans and other dogs.
"Our brain imaging findings suggest they may even demonstrate something like jealousy when their owners interact with other dogs," Cook said. "This helps us better understand the dog-human relationship, but also suggests the dog could be a novel animal model for looking at social neuroscience."
Cook also found that dogs can be trained to hold enough information for functional brain imaging, and imaging data could be retrieved from live wild animals and collected dead brains, which provides more points of comparison for brain organization and evolution.
"When we have questions about the human brain and behavior, we have a much wider range of potential species to probe for similarities and differences," Cook said.