Dog memory maze

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Dogs share our homes, our lives and our hearts. Unfortunately, they also share our vulnerability to dementia, through a disease similar to Alzheimer’s. At ASU’s Canine Science Collaboratory, dogs navigate a maze to help researchers understand memory in man’s best friend.

By Alexander D. Chapin

Dec. 9, 2015

Video transcript


Today, 5.3 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, including an estimated 200,000 under the age of 65. –Alzheimer’s Association

By 2050, up to 16 million will have the disease. –Alzheimer’s Association

ASU researchers are studying memory loss from an unexpected perspective.


Clive Wynne, Professor, Canine Science Collaboratory: The Canine Science Collaboratory is a group at ASU that studies the behavior of dogs and their interaction with human beings. And when I came to ASU I chose to call it a collaboratory, rather than just a laboratory, is because I think the only way we’re really going to understand dogs and how they live with people, is if we get together a diverse group of experts with very wide-ranging sorts of expertise.

As it happens, dogs are the only species other than monkeys that spontaneously develop something like Alzheimer’s disease, what we call Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.


Canine Cognitive Dysfunction


Wynne: And it’s very, very sad. It’s very sad to see.

So we are studying this both because we hope that our experiments will enable the development of new treatments, but also our hope is that through research on dogs we will also be able to help human beings.

Sophie Raymond, Research Team Leader, Canine Science Collaboratory: In the lab we get to interact with a lot of people from the public that bring in their dogs as volunteers for our research. So they’re very excited about what we’re doing and they get to come in and watch their dogs perform these tasks.


Radial Arm Maze


Wynne: We began to study how dogs remember things in a maze. And so we put the dogs into a very standard maze environment, where they have to move around and remember where they have already found food and where there is still food waiting to be discovered.  We keep a record of what they’re doing by making check marks on paper as they go round, and we also have a video camera up on the wall so we have a permanent record of everything the dog did.  So the dog is basically simply having its behavior observed.  No do is ever coerced to do anything it doesn’t want to do. If the dog is  uncomfortable then we just thank the dog and the owner and send them home.


scatterplot graph:


x-axis–Age in Months, scale of 20

y-axis–Mean Errors Per Run, scale of 2

data trend: positive correlation between x and y axis


Wynne: So I was quite surprised to find that we see that age is a very important factor in memory in the maze task. The older dogs, even though they look quite healthy, are nonetheless making 2 or 3 times as many mistakes as they look for food in the maze. One project we want to move onto next is to look at how that differs between different breeds of dogs, because one very interesting thing is that in dogs life expectancy varies by 100% between short-lived breeds, like Great Danes that only are expected to live 7 or 8 years, and longer-lived breeds, which includes most mutts and many smaller breeds of dog that may often live to be 14, 15 years old. So we are asking the question, if you take a Great Dane, if you take a breed of dog that’s only expected to live to be 8, and you test that dog at 7 years of age, does it make lots of mistakes in the maze like an old dog generally would? Or does it make fewer mistakes because its brain is only 7 years old? So this is something that we are urgently focusing on as a next step, is to study different breeds of dog.

I love it when my students come in and they’ve got some new data, and we look at the numbers, and I love the science discovery. And to be able to actually help dogs, and help people with their dogs, it’s, you know, it’s a very lucky situation to be able to meld a technical scientific enthusiasm with something that really matters to me and I know to thousands of other people too.

Raymond: It’s a great experience. I get to network with a lot of people that are involved in other research as well.


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