UMass seeks 5,000 dogs for study of genes and brain disorders

Could your dog's slobber hold clues to curing a range of psychiatric disorders in both pets and people? That was the intriguing question posted online recently by Elinor Karlsson, an assistant professor of bioinformatics and integrative biology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. To answer it, Karlsson is recruiting volunteers for a new "citizen science research" project called Darwin's Dogs, which seeks to collect genomic information on 5,000 canines.

Dogs and humans share a susceptibility to dozens of neurological diseases, including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy and even autism. Karlsson's team, which includes animal-behavior experts, plans to sequence the genomes of the dogs who are volunteered for the research, using saliva samples collected by their owners. Participants will also be asked to fill out surveys about their pets' personalities, diets and behaviors.

The researchers are accepting any type of dog into the study, and they plan to use advanced DNA sequencing and new analysis technology to assemble reams of information on genetic variants. The ultimate goal, Karlsson says in her posting, is to look for genetic changes that correlate with certain behaviors. What they learn could help unlock the mysteries of the neural pathways that contribute to brain disorders, she says.

"We hypothesize that finding the small genetic changes that led to complex behaviors, like retrieving, or even personality characteristics, like playfulness, will help us figure out how brains work," Karlsson wrote in her posting. "We need this mechanistic understanding to design new, safe and more effective therapies for psychiatric diseases."

Citizen science projects involving dogs are becoming increasingly popular tools for researching diseases to which animals and people are both susceptible. The Morris Animal Foundation's Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, for example, is a 15-year study of 3,000 dogs that is focusing largely on cancer, which affects 60% of goldens. That study is also looking at osteoarthritis, and in August, investigators reported that 14% of the owners participating in the study reported giving their dogs nutritional supplements to relieve joint pain.

As for Karlsson's study, she has already recruited one dog to participate: her sister's mixed-breed pup, Beskow, who has a history of anxiety.

- read more from Karlsson
- access the Darwin's Dogs homepage here