Study Suggests Dogs That Detect Seizures Are Actually Sniffing for Human Fear

A new study suggests that dogs that detect seizures are able to do so because they associate a specific human alarm pheromone with human epileptic seizure. In other words: seizure-sniffing dogs are actually sensing human fear.

The researchers, whose report can be found in the August 2021 issue of Epilepsy & Behavior, hypothesized that their canine seizure scent detection team would detect human epileptic seizure when presented with fear-scented sweat. To test their suspicions, they obtained sweat samples from volunteers at Denver Health and had their canine assistants, who had been trained to recognize seizure scent, process the sweat samples.

In stage one of the study, sweat samples were collected twice from subjects with no prior history of seizures, the first after watching a scary movie and again after watching a comedy. When presented with the stage one sweat samples, the canine seizure scent detection team detected the seizure scent in four out of the five study subjects. Remarkably, there was total agreement between the canine assistants as to which samples contained the seizure scent and which did not.

Stage two was a larger follow-up study in which the canine assistants were presented with fear sweat, epilepsy sweat, exercise sweat, as well as a selection of random sweats for control. In this much more complex stage, the dogs successfully identified either fear or epilepsy sweat 82% of the time. The canine team were also 100% accurate in identifying sweat that was not fear or epilepsy sweat, thus the overall detection accuracy of fear epilepsy sweat came out to 82%. Detection agreement between canine seizure detection members was 92%.

According to the researchers, these results confirm that seizure-sniffing dogs associate fear-scented sweat with epilepsy sweat, and that the chemical menthone, which is found in both types of sweat, may be the specific compound the dogs are reacting to. This suggests that human seizure propagation may be anatomically tied to our fear networks and implies that menthone may be a human alarm pheromone.

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