Neurological Basis for Human-Pet Relationships Explored in New Study

In this study, researchers examined the differences in brain structures when women viewed images of their pets and their children. Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study has various implications on the bond women have with both biological and “adopted” children. Previous research has already demonstrated the depth of the pet-human bond, and shows that interacting with animals can help promote social, physical, and emotional health.

Studies have shown that the bonding hormone oxytocin is released both when women interact with their children and
 with their pets. Now scientists have taken a closer look at this finding. A group of women were recruited to this study, all of which had a child between the ages of two to ten years old and a dog that was at least two years of age. Two sessions occurred in the study, with the first consisting of an in-home interview, in which participants took several surveys about their relationships with their children and pets.

Each participant then had pictures taken of their children and dogs, which were used for the second stage of the study. At the Center for Biomedical Imaging in Massachusetts, participants viewed the pictures of their pets and children while an fMRI took brain scans of the participants. Images shown to the women included those of their children and pets, as well as those of unfamiliar dogs and children. At the end of the scanned stage, participants then completed tests measuring their image recognition and rated images on factors like excitement and pleasure.

Fourteen women had full data collected for the study, and the results showed both differences and similarities in brain structures that reacted to images of a participant viewing her child and her dog. Brain regions linked to affiliation, visual processing, reward, social interaction, and emotion were all activated when a woman viewed an image of her child or her dog. An area of the brain connected to bond formation was only activated when a woman viewed an image of her child. However, the facial recognition and visual processing area of the brain showed an increased response when a participant viewed an image of her dog. Although further research must be conducted to prove these findings correct, this study suggests there may indeed be similarities to the parent-child and human-pet bond. 

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Gary Starkman Dr. Starkman, a top Neurologist in NYC, is the Medical Director and founder of New York Neurology Associates. He is Board Certified in Neurology with a subspecialty certification in Pain Medicine.

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