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Researchers found that when study participants viewed, felt and touched real dogs it led to increasingly high levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate and process social and emotional interactions. Photo courtesy of HealthDay © HealthDay Researchers found that when study participants viewed, felt and touched real dogs it led to increasingly high levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate and process social and emotional interactions. Photo courtesy of HealthDay

If you have dogs, you probably know that petting them can give you a lift.

Researchers set out to prove that using technology to show what happens in the brain when stroking or sitting next to a dog. They also compared that to petting a stuffed animal.

They found that when study participants viewed, felt and touched real dogs it led to increasingly high levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate and process social and emotional interactions.

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"Prefrontal brain activity in healthy subjects increased with a rise in interactional closeness with a dog or a plush animal, but especially in contact with the dog the activation is stronger," wrote study authors led by Rahel Marti at the University of Basel in Switzerland. The findings appear in the Wednesday issue of PLOS ONE.

The researchers used infrared neuroimaging technology to measure what happened in the brains of 19 adults who viewed a dog, reclined with the same dog against their legs, or petted the dog.

Participants then did the same with a furry stuffed lion called Leo, who was filled with a water bottle to mimic the temperature and weight of the dogs.

The study found that participants' prefrontal brain activity was greater when they interacted with real dogs. The biggest impact was found with petting.

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Also, this brain activity increased each time the participants interacted with the real dog, which did not happen with each successive stuffed lion interaction.

The effect continued even after the dogs were no longer present.

"This indicates that interactions with a dog might activate more attentional processes and elicit stronger emotional arousal than comparable nonliving stimuli," the researchers said in a journal news release.

It's possible this research may help clinicians design improved systems for animal-assisted therapy, according to the study.

Future studies are needed to examine whether petting animals can trigger similar brain activity in patients with socioemotional deficits, the authors said.

More information

The American Kennel Club has more on therapy dogs.

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