Methusalah dogs are pushing the boundaries of cognitive science

Credit: Pxfuel
Credit: Pxfuel

Living with people means dogs experience near-identical social and environmental influences on a daily basis. They show off a host of cognitive skills in their interactions with us. Chemicals, air pollution, noise pollution, and lack of exercise—suspected risk factors of cognitive decline—affect dogs just as they do us. 

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The Senior Family Dog Project has collected data via behavioral tests and surveys on more than 20,000 dogs. “We found age-related differences in brain activity, cognition, personality, the gut microbiome, gene expression, and gene variants in several aspects similar to human aging,” [ethologist Eniko] Kubinyi says. “We’ve found parallels time after time.”

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[B]y analyzing the whole genome sequence of two mixed-breed canines aged 22 and 27—far older than the average dog lifespan of about 10 to 13 years, and dubbed “Methuselah dogs” after the long-lived biblical figure—the researchers identified more than 80,000 novel genetic mutations compared with 850 dogs of normal lifespan. So far they have found genetic markers for aging in the blood and brain.

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Over the next decade, the project will follow tens of thousands of pet canines. The involvement of many owners interested in volunteering their dogs will enable extensive data collection, offering more insight into aging-based influences than possible through lab research, says Evan MacLean, an evolutionary anthropologist working on the project.

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