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Dogs’ brains aren’t hardwired to care about human faces, study shows

Researchers measured brain activity in dogs and humans as they showed them videos of faces and backs of heads, a press release from Eötvös Loránd University, in Hungary, said.

While faces are hugely important for visual communication in humans, the same can’t be said for our canine companions.

Experiments involving functional magnetic resonance imaging on 20 dogs were carried out at Eötvös Loránd University and the National Autonomous University of México, Querétaro, Mexico, two of very few facilities that can scan dogs’ brains when they are awake and unrestrained.

Results revealed large dedicated neural networks in human brains are used to differentiate faces from non-faces. In dogs there are no brain regions that fire to differentiate faces.

Instead, dogs use more information from smell or larger parts of the body, study co-author Attila Andics of Eötvös Loránd University, told CNN.

Germans could legally have to let their dogs out twice a day

“In dogs, for kin recognition and mate selection facial cues are not more important than non-facial bodily cues, acoustic or chemical signals,” Andics said.

The full study, described by researchers as the first one of its kind, was published in the Journal of Neuroscience Monday.

Andics told CNN that dogs do care about human faces, even if their brains aren’t specifically tuned into them.

“I think it is amazing that, despite apparently not having a specialized neural machinery to process faces, dogs nevertheless excel at eye contact, following gaze, reading emotions from our face, and they can even recognize their owner by the face,” Andics said.

“During domestication, dogs adapted to the human social environment, and living with humans they quickly learn that reading facial cues makes sense, just as humans learn to pay attention to little details, of let’s say, a phone, without having specialized phone areas in their brain.”

Researchers will now compare how dog and human brains process other visual categories such as body parts, various species and everyday objects, said Andics.

The team will also investigate whether dog brains have developed different specializations as a result of living with humans, Andics added.

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A virus and bacteria may ‘team up’ to harm babies’ brains

A newly discovered bacteria may be working with a common virus to cause a serious brain condition in infants in Uganda, according to a new study.

This brain disorder, called hydrocephalus, involves an abnormal buildup of fluid in the cavities of the brain and is the most common reason for brain surgery in young children, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Every year, about 400,000 new cases of hydrocephalus are diagnosed in children worldwide, and the condition remains a major burden in low- and middle-income countries, according to the study published today (Sept. 30) in the journal Science Translational Medicine

About half of those hydrocephalus cases happen after a prior infection and are known as “post-infectious hydrocephalus,” according to the study. But until now, scientists didn’t know what microbes were infecting infants, and identifying those pathogens is key to preventing the condition, according to the authors.

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For nearly 20 years, a small hospital in Uganda called the CURE Children’s hospital has been treating thousands of cases of hydrocephalus in children.

“Hydrocephalus is the most common childhood neurosurgical condition that we see in the population that we serve,” one of the lead authors Dr. Edith Mbabazi-Kabachelor, director of research, CURE Children’s Hospital of Uganda said in a statement. If left untreated in children younger than 2 years of age, hydrocephalus will increase head size, leading to brain damage; the majority of those children will die, and the others will be left with physical or cognitive disabilities, she added. 

So a group of international researchers set out to understand what could be causing this brain condition.

“Thirteen years ago, while visiting Uganda and seeing a stream of kids with hydrocephalus after infection I asked the doctors, ‘What is the biggest problem you have that you can’t solve?'” one of the senior authors Steven J. Schiff, Brush Chair professor of engineering and professor of engineering science and mechanics, neurosurgery and physics at Penn State, said in the statement. “‘Why don’t you figure out what makes these kids sick?’ was the reply.”

CT brain scans of infants with hydrocephalus show differences in the brains of those with post-infectious hydrocephalus (PIH), non-postinfectious hydrocephalus (NPIH), infection with the bacteria Paenibacillus (Paeni) or infection with the virus cytomegalovirus (CMV).

CT brain scans of infants with hydrocephalus show differences in the brains of those with post-infectious hydrocephalus (PIH), non-post-infectious hydrocephalus (NPIH), infection with the bacteria Paenibacillus (Paeni) or infection with the virus cytomegalovirus (CMV). (Image credit: J.N. Paulson et al., Science Translational Medicine (2020))

Schiff and his team analyzed blood and cerebrospinal fluid from 100 infants under 3 months old being treated at the CURE Children’s hospital for hydrocephalus — 64 of them developed the condition after an infection (doctors knew they had been infected because the babies either had severe illness, seizures or brain imaging showed signs of a prior infection) and 36 without a prior infection (brain images and other tests showed another issue causing the condition such as tumors or cysts).

They sent these samples to two different labs for DNA and RNA sequencing to look for possible traces of genetic material from bacteria, viruses