Teaching dogs while they sleep

Published: Nov. 21, 2017 at 5:30 PM EST
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Kamilla is one of 15 dogs in Budapest, Hungary being trained in English, instead of Hungarian. Researchers are testing to see if she can learn and retain commands while she sleeps.

Scientists hooked electrodes onto Kamilla and as she dozed, they measured electrical movement in her brain for three hours. They focused on the brief bursts of brain activity known as "sleep spindles." The movements last up to five seconds and are known to support memory, learning, and general intelligence in people.

"This is the first time we were able to show that sleep spindles predict learning in the dog," says neuroscience researcher Ivaylo Iotchev.

The study found the more bursts of brain activity per minute, the more the dogs learned their English commands. Female dogs have twice as many sleep spindles as males and are better learners and memorize tasks more efficiently.

The study also looked at how a dog's memory changes with age. The team says up to two-thirds of canines, aged 15-to-16, show signs of dementia, including getting lost, apathy, and irritability.

"This dementia is really very similar, in a lot of aspects, to that of humans. So, we could use dogs as a natural model of human aging," says researcher Eniko Kubinyi.

Researchers set up a dog brain and tissue bank to share samples of aging and other diseases with scientists around the world.