Scientists identify neurons in the brain that drive competition and social behavior within groups

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Mar 28, 2022

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New research in mice has identified neurons in the brain that influence competitive interactions between individuals and that play a critical role in shaping the social behavior of groups. Published in Nature by a team led by investigators at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the findings will be useful not only for scientists interested in human interactions but also for those who study neurocognitive conditions such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia that are characterized by altered social behavior.

Social interactions in humans and animals occur most commonly in large groups, and these group interactions play a prominent role in sociology, ecology, psychology, economics and political science,” says lead author S. William Li, an MD/PhD student at MGH. “What processes in the brain drive the complex dynamic behavior of social groups remains poorly understood, in part because most neuroscience research thus far has focused on the behaviors of pairs of individuals interacting alone. Here, we were able to study the behavior of groups by developing a paradigm in which large cohorts of mice were wirelessly tracked across thousands of unique competitive group interactions.”

Li and his colleagues found that the animals’ social ranking in the group was closely linked to the results of competition, and by examining recordings from neurons in the brains of mice in real time, the team discovered that neurons in the anterior cingulate region of the brain store this social ranking information to inform upcoming decisions.

“Collectively, these neurons held remarkably detailed representations of the group’s behavior and their dynamics as the animals competed together for food, in addition to information about the resources available and the outcome of their past interactions,” explains senior author Ziv M. Williams, MD, a neurosurgical oncologist at MGH. “Together, these neurons could even predict the animal’s own future success well before competition onset, meaning that they likely drove the animals’ competitive behavior based on whom they interacted with.

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