Researchers Probing Dog DNA for Clues to Human Mental Illnesses

By HiSa Hiller, Schweiz (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

Looking at the compulsive behaviors adopted by dogs, researchers are hoping to find out why some dogs are more prone to these disorders than others. Addie is an 11 year old Swiss Mountain dog and she behaves like any other pet, but when she was about a year old, she began to lick her front legs compulsively, enough to wear off tufts of fur and cause bleeding.

Addie was diagnosed with canine compulsive disorder, which is very similar to obsessive compulsive disorder in humans. Addie’s owner enrolled her into a project called “Darwin’s Dogs” which has the aim of comparing information about the behavior of thousands of dogs against the animals DNA profile.

The Study

The goal is to prove whether or not genetic links will emerge for conditions such as canine compulsive disorder and canine cognitive dysfunction, a dog analogue of dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. The organizers of the project have enrolled 3,000 dogs, but hope to get information from at least 5,000, they expect to start analyzing DNA samples in March, 2016.

Clive Wynne, a student of canine behavior at Arizona State University in Tempe states, “It’s very exciting, in many ways it’s way overdue.”
For a long time, researchers have struggled to figure out genetic links to human psychiatric illnesses by analyzing DNA samples from thousands of people. Those efforts have been successful with some advances in depression and schizophrenia. However, for some conditions such as OCD, not a single valid genetic link has been discovered from normal genetic variation.

Human studies are hard because the species are so genetically diverse. Pure-bred dogs, in particular, have been rendered highly genetically consistent to achieve the same homogenous look and behavior.
Dogs live with humans, which some scientists believe makes them a better model for human disorders than mice.

The qualities dogs possess have made them a target for studies of analogues to human ailments, including cancer, epilepsy, and varying psychiatric disorders. Geneticist Elinor Karlsson of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worchester and her team studied canine compulsive disorder, a condition which is common in certain dog breeds. Their study involving 150 dogs has found possible links to four genes that encode proteins that react in the brain.

To further expand on these results, Karlsson decided to think outside the box, by limiting her studies to specific dog breeds that would be easier to pick out some genetic links, but others may be missed. She collected data on mongrels as well as pure-bred dogs.


It is still not clear how useful the results from dogs will be on shedding light on human behavior variation. However, Dr. Karlsson is hopeful that even if different genetics are involved in the two species, they may converge on the same cell pathways.

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