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Monkey Brain Gives Clues to Human Interaction
Date:3/20/2008

Neurological responses to sexual, social cues may mimic those of people, scientists say

THURSDAY, March 20 (HealthDay News) -- Monkeys have social lives, too, and watching how their brains process social cues is helping scientists better understand human social behavior and autism.

Little is known about how the human brain evaluates social information and uses it to manage behavior, notes a team of researchers at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. Even less is known about what goes wrong with this process in people with autism, a social/learning disorder that affects more than one million Americans.

"Our prior studies described how social attention of rhesus monkeys is similar to humans -- motivated by status and sex, and sensitive to the attentive states of other individuals," Michael Platt, an associate professor of neurology at Duke, said in a prepared statement.

In this new study, he and his colleagues found "that the parietal cortex, which plays a critical role in guiding attention, becomes active according to the social value of images seen and ultimately enables the behavior of the animal."

In this and previous studies, the monkeys were given juice rewards to look at different images. They would forego a reward of juice to see positive images: the hindquarters of a female, for example, or the face of a dominant monkey. But they had to be "paid" more juice to view negative images: a lower-ranking monkey or a simple gray square.

"This tells us that the monkeys chose to look at images that carried valuable social information for guiding behavior. At the same time, we monitored the activity of the neurons and noticed that the firing pattern matched the behaviors we saw," Platt said.

The firing rate of neurons in the parietal cortex increased as the monkeys viewed more positive images or received more juice.

"We interpret these results to mean that the activit
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