Brain networks for Social Cognition

By studying rhesus monkeys, researchers have identified a brain network dedicated to processing social interactions — a discovery that offers tantalizing clues to the origins of our ability to understand what other people are thinking.

Scientists call our ability to understand another person’s thoughts — to intuit their desires, read their intentions, and predict their behavior — theory of mind. It’s an essential human trait, one that is crucial to effective social interaction. But where did it come from? Working with rhesus macaque monkeys, researchers in Winrich Freiwald’s Laboratory of Neural Systems at The Rockefeller University have discovered tantalizing clues about the origins of our ability to understand what other people are thinking. As reported in Science on May 18, Freiwald and postdoc Julia Sliwa have identified areas in the brains of these primates that are exclusively dedicated to analyzing social interactions. And they may have evolved into the neural circuitry that supports theory of mind in the human brain.


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The Social Neuroscience of Empathy – eBook

After decades as the cultivated interest of scholars in philosophy and in clinical and developmental psychology, empathy research is suddenly everywhere! Seemingly overnight it has blossomed into a vibrant, multidisciplinary field of study and has crossed the boundaries of clinical and developmental psychology to plant its roots fi rmly in the soil of personality and social psychology, mainstream cognitive psychology, and cognitive-affective neuroscience.

To account for the recent explosion of empathy research, we must trace its growth to roots that are less obvious but even deeper than those mentioned so far: the study of the capacity for empathy in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. As Sue Carter, James Harris, and Stephen Porges argue in chapter 13 of the present volume, the capacity for empathy in humans and their progenitor species developed over millions of years of evolutionary history, in ways that are only now becoming clear. Although it is impossible to travel back in time and observe these developments directly, the evidence for them is available in the neuroanatomical continuities and differences that can be observed across the phylogenetic spectrum.

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Self-organization and Emergence in Life Sciences

The concept of self-organization takes a growing place in the evolution of  contemporary sciences. Coming from the second cybernetics, which developed in USA at the end of the 1950th, this concept had first implications in biological sciences in the context of the Biological Computer Laboratory founded by Von Foerster and in the works of three symposia on the Self-Organizing Systems from 1960 to 1962. During the 1970th, this approach was developed specially by the Chilian school of biology. Since the 1980th, the Santa Fe Institute gives a new impulse to these perspectives. These works go on linked with the progress in the algorithm’s theories, in artificial intelligence and in the analysis of non-linear systems, in particular by the Brussels school. They lead, on the beginning of the 1990th, to books whose explicit purpose is a fundamental new approach of the living. The concept of emergence refers to the coming out of new properties linked to the complexity of an organization. In scientific context, selforganization models have an important place in the formalization of emergence. The order from chaos, presented by Self-Organizing models, is often interpreted in terms of emergence, id est the advent of a higher level of organization.


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The anatomy of Empathy

Empathy, the ability to vicariously experience and to understand the affect of other people, is fundamental for successful social-cognitive ability and behaviour. Empathy is thought to be a critical facilitator of prosocial behaviour and is disrupted in a number of psychiatric and neurological disorders. Research has begun to uncover the neural basis of such ‘vicarious experience’, which has been studied as a proxy  measure of empathy. Together, these studies have identified portions of the insula and anterior cingulate cortex as critically involved. A key debate is whether overlapping or non-overlapping brain areas respond to personal and vicarious experience. This review will highlight emerging evidence for both types of brain response. Importantly, animal models have suggested that there are central divisions between the anterior cingulate gyrus and anterior cingulate sulcus that may be crucial for understanding social behaviour. Attention to this specific anatomy of vicarious processing could therefore help shed light on the functional profile of empathy. Studies in individuals with psychopathy and autism spectrum disorders have found that vicarious experience is atypical. However, the precise nature of these atypicalities is mixed. Understanding the mechanisms of vicarious experience can enhance our knowledge of the neural basis of empathy and, ultimately, help those with disorders of social cognition and behaviour.


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Correlated genotypes in friendship networks

It is well known that humans tend to associate with other humans who have similar characteristics, but it is unclear whether this tendency has consequences for the distribution of genotypes in a population. Although geneticists have shown that  populations tend to stratify genetically, this process results from geographic sorting or assortative mating, and it is unknown whether genotypes may be correlated as a consequence of nonreproductive associations or other processes. Here, we study six available genotypes from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to test for genetic similarity between friends. Maps of the friendship networks show lustering of genotypes and, after we apply strict controls for population stratification, the results show that one genotype is positively correlated (homophily) and one genotype is negatively correlated (heterophily). A replication study in an independent sample from the Framingham Heart Study verifies that DRD2 exhibits significant homophily and that CYP2A6 exhibits significant heterophily. These unique results show that homophily and heterophily obtain on a genetic (indeed, an allelic) level, which has implications for the study of population genetics and social behavior. In particular, the results suggest that association tests should include friends’ genes and that theories of evolution should take into account the fact that humans might, in some sense, be metagenomic with respect to the humans around them.


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How our understanding of the Brain could be wrong

Understanding the human brain is arguably the greatest challenge of modern science. The leading approach for most of the past 200 years has been to link its functions to different brain regions or even individual neurons (brain cells). But recent research increasingly suggests that we may be taking completely the wrong path if we are to ever understand the human mind.

The idea that the brain is made up of numerous regions that perform specific tasks is known as “modularity”. And, at first glance, it has been successful. For example, it can provide an explanation for how we recognise faces by activating a chain of specific brain regions in the occipital and temporal lobes. Bodies, however, are processed by a different set of brain regions. And scientists believe that yet other areas – memory regions – help combine these perceptual stimuli to create holistic representations of people. The activity of certain brain areas has also been linked to specific conditions and diseases.


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Human Brain Networks Developing in Adolescence Related to Evolutionary Expansion

According to a new study, adolescence may be a crucial period for remodeling of the human brain. Penn study uses data from study of brain development to offer new opportunities for research into prevention of psychiatric illness. Adolescence marks not only the period of physical maturation bridging childhood and adulthood, but also a crucial period for remodeling of the human brain. A Penn study reveals new patterns of coordinated development in the outer layer of the cerebrum of the human brain and describes how these structural patterns relate to functional networks. The team found the convergence between structural and functional networks was inversely related to functional complexity. Motor, sensory, visual and functional networks aligned to distinct structural networks. This unique representation of brain maturation may open new opportunities for future studies into many psychiatric disorders that might begin during this age. A team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania publishes the findings this week in PNAS.



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During Learning, Neurons Deep in Brain Engage in a High Level of Activity

A new study could shed light on how the cerebellum encodes information. It’s the part of the brain that makes sure you cannot tickle yourself. The cerebellum, an apple-sized region near the base of the skull, senses that your own fingers are the ones trying to tickle, and cancels your usual response. Now an international team of researchers has learned something surprising about this region, which despite its small size contains roughly half of all the neurons in the brain. These neurons, which were thought to fire only rarely as they take in information from the senses, are in fact far more active than previously suspected. The finding, published March 20 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, may signal a major shift in our understanding of how the cerebellum encodes information..l “People used to think that the cerebellum’s input layer of neurons was only sparsely active, and encoded only information collected from the external world,” said Sam Wang, professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, and a senior co-author on the study. “It turns out that they light up like a Christmas tree, and they convey information both from outside the body and from other areas within the brain.”



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Older Mothers Are Better Mothers

Children of older mothers tend to experience fewer behavioral, emotional and social problems at the ages of 7 and 11, a new study reports. Children of older mothers have fewer behavioral, social and emotional difficulties. The result should be seen in conjunction with the widespread recommendation not to have children too late. This recommendation is based on knowledge about e.g. declining fertility and the health risks during pregnancy and while giving birth which are associated with advanced maternal age.



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Insulin Resistance and Faster Cognitive Decline

A new study reports insulin resistance is linked to accelerated cognitive decline. A new Tel Aviv University study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease finds that insulin resistance, caused in part by obesity and physical inactivity, is also linked to a more rapid decline in cognitive performance. According to the research, both diabetic and non-diabetic subjects with insulin resistance experienced accelerated cognitive decline in executive function and memory.

“These are exciting findings because they may help to identify a group of individuals at increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia in older age,” says Prof. Tanne. “We know that insulin resistance can be prevented and treated by lifestyle changes and certain insulin-sensitizing drugs. Exercising, maintaining a balanced and healthy diet, and watching your weight will help you prevent insulin resistance and, as a result, protect your brain as you get older.”


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