Researchers have turned to an unusual source to find out more about mental illness – DNA from our four-legged friends.

Darwin’s Dogs is a project being carried out by the University of Massachusetts in the United States. Scientists have asked dog owners to donate samples of their canine’s DNA for them to study in the hope that it might help them gain a better understanding of illnesses which affect humans.

Elinor Karlsson, who is leading the project, said the focus of the work will be to learn more about mental illnesses with a view to using the findings to develop more effective treatments in the future.

She said: “Finding the genes connected to a mental illness, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in dogs, will help us identify the brain signalling pathway involved in OCD in dogs and humans. We think that finding the small genetic changes that led to complex behaviours, like retrieving, or even personality characteristics, like playfulness, will help us figure out how brains work – also helping us design new, safe and more effective therapies for psychiatric diseases.”

Owners use swab to collect sample from pet

Pet owners taking part in the research are asked to fill out an online questionnaire which quizzes them about what their dog looks like, how he behaves and his diet and exercise regime. They are then sent a sampling kit so they can collect DNA from their dog’s mouth using a cotton swab.

To thank participants for getting involved, the scientists will send them information about their animal’s genetic ancestry.

Although, AlphaBiolabs only carries out DNA testing on humans, we also have convenient testing kits which can be used at home. With a simple to use swab, people wanting to take paternity and other DNA tests can collect their own sample before sending it into our laboratory to be analysed.

For those taking legal DNA tests, we can send a sample collection team to them or they can drop in to one of our walk-in centres.