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A Mother's Love: Brain's Response to Child vs Dog

Oct 04, 2014 12:07 PM EDT

You know how people often say parents treat their pets like their own kids? Well, it seems that a mother's love for her child versus her dog has a neurological basis, where important brain structures are activated when women view images of their children and of their own dog, according to a new study.

Some dog owners come to refer to themselves as "pet parents," but how closely does the relationship between people and their furry friends mirror the parent-child relationship?

"Pets hold a special place in many people's hearts and lives, and there is compelling evidence from clinical and laboratory studies that interacting with pets can be beneficial to the physical, social and emotional wellbeing of humans," co-lead author of the study Lori Palley said in a statement.

"Several previous studies have found that levels of neurohormones like oxytocin - which is involved in pair-bonding and maternal attachment - rise after interaction with pets, and new brain imaging technologies are helping us begin to understand the neurobiological basis of the relationship, which is exciting."

In order to compare the human-pet bond with relationships with one's children, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital studied women who had at least one child, aged 2 to 10 years old, and one pet that was at least two years old. They showed participants photos of their own child and dog, alternating with those of an unfamiliar child and dog belonging to another study participant, having them rate each image. After undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the 14 women who completed the study showed similar brain responses to seeing pictures of both their child and dog.

Areas involved in emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social interaction all showed increased activity when participants viewed either their own child or their own dog. However, the substantia nigra/ventral tegmental area (SNi/VTA), known to be important to bond formation, was only activated in response to a mother's child.

What's more, the fusiform gyrus, which is involved in facial recognition and other visual processing functions, actually showed greater response to own-dog images than own-child images.

"Although this is a small study that may not apply to other individuals, the results suggest there is a common brain network important for pair-bond formation and maintenance that is activated when mothers viewed images of either their child or their dog," added Luke Stoeckel, co-lead author of the PLOS ONE report.

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