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Is it … Baa-rack Obama? Sheep able to recognise celebrities, say neuroscientists

Sheep able to distinguish pictures of celebrities from unfamiliar faces with near-human accuracy, with implications for research into Huntingtons disease

It has all the makings of a pub quiz teaser: what do Barack Obama, Emma Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal and the British TV presenter Fiona Bruce have in common? The answer, courtesy of neuroscientists in Cambridge, is that all have been recognised by sheep.

The unlikely connection emerges from work on the face recognition skills of a Welsh Mountain breed that belongs to a university flock. Having trained the animals on mugshots of the four, scientists found the sheep could distinguish the celebrities from unfamiliar faces with an accuracy comparable to that of humans.

We know that sheep can recognise their handlers, but I was still impressed they could do this, said Jenny Morton, a professor of neurobiology who led the study at the University of Cambridge. Face recognition is a sophisticated process, but theyve got big brains, they see other sheep, and they use this processing to recognise one another.

When presented with headshots of people looking straight on, the sheep recognised the celebrities 80% of the time, a figure that dropped to 67% when the person had their head tilted to one side, the scientists report in Royal Society Open Science. The animals recognised pictures of their handlers without any training, but often dithered before reaching a decision.

The research is not as frivolous as it sounds. In 2006, neuroscientist Richard Faull and geneticist Russell Snell at Auckland University created sheep with a mutation that causes Huntingtons disease. Morton has now imported some of the animals and hopes to add face recognition to a battery of tests that will monitor their behaviour and the effectiveness of new drugs to treat the condition.

Professor
Professor Morton, with transgenic sheep imported from New Zealand to assist with research into Huntingtons disease. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

We can give the sheep new treatments and use our tasks to measure how well they perform over time. We can see how quickly they learn and what they learn, said Morton. If a treatment works you would expect to see no difference between a normal sheep and a Huntingtons sheep having the treatment.

Morton used a specially-designed pen to train and test the sheep. In training, the animals entered an area that had two screens on the wall. At random, one of the screens would show the face of one of the four celebrities, while the other either remained blank, displayed an inanimate object, or showed the face of an unfamiliar person. Whenever the sheep approached the celebrity, they broke an infrared beam and received a cereal pellet reward. If they approached the other screen, a buzzer rang and the animals left unrewarded.

The same enclosure was used for the tests. This time, the sheep were shown a celebrity face next to another face, either head-on or at an angle. Morton left it to her postdoctoral researchers to choose the celebrities. We wanted faces that we knew the sheep hadnt met in person and where we had plenty of front-on and tilted images, she said.

Face recognition involves several parts of the brain, so monitoring how well the Huntingtons sheep recognise faces as the disease takes hold could reveal the very first signs of impairment. It could also show whether experimental gene therapies that aim to block the Huntingtons mutation are effective and have no side-effects.

Huntingtons disease is a devastating neurodegenerative disorder that affects nearly 7,000 people in Britain. It is inherited from either parent with signs of the disease usually emerging between 35 and 55. Some of the earliest symptoms are mood and personality changes, but over time, memory, movement, mental health, speech and swallowing all suffer, until death 10 to 25 years after the first symptoms appear. There is no known cure.

Were hoping that with treatments that improve Huntingtons pathology well see the reversal of some of the cognitive changes, said Morton. We want to understand how the disease starts so we can start thinking about preventing it.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/nov/08/is-it-baa-rack-obama-sheep-able-to-recognise-celebrities-say-neuroscientists

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