Discovery of Brain Neurons Could Improve Autism Understanding

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A discovery by scientists of a set of neurons in a region of the brain called the anterior cingulate that is used to predict how an opponent will behave in a decision-making task may help in the treatment of behavioral disorders including autism spectrum disorders.

Keren Haroush, MD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard Medical School Center for Nervous System Repair, and colleagues studied monkeys while recording activity of their neurons as they played a prisoner’s dilemma game, in which the monkeys sat side-by-side and chose either a symbol that represents cooperation or a symbol that represents a lack of cooperation, known as defection.

If both monkeys chose the cooperation symbol, they each received a medium drink of juice, but if they choose differently, the one that chose the defector got a large drink of juice, and the cooperator got the small size. If both choose defector, both monkeys got an equally small drink of juice.

The monkeys consistently tried to predict each other’s next move, activating half of the 353 different neurons researchers studied, they reported in the journal Cell. The monkeys learned from prior decisions, realizing that choosing the cooperation symbol benefited both of them.

The researchers also discovered that the frontal lobe part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex was where cooperative person-to-person interactions were happening. People with autism often have abnormalities in this region.

“Our eventual hope is to better understand how these complex, multifaceted interactions are encoded within the human brain and use this understanding to develop new, targeted treatment for disorders such as autism and antisocial behavior, which are often characterized by difficulty with social interaction,” Haroush said in a statement.

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Discovery of Brain Neurons Could Improve Autism Understanding

Social interactions rely on the ability to anticipate others' intentions and actions, and identifying neurons that reflect another individual's so-called "state of mind" has been a long-sought goal in neuroscience.

A study published in the journal Cell reveals that a newly discovered set of neurons in a frontal brain region called the anterior cingulate is used in primates to predict whether or not an opponent will cooperate in a strategic decision-making task, providing information about the inherently unobservable and unknown decisions of others.

By shedding light on the neuronal basis of cooperative interactions, the study paves the way for the targeted treatment of social behavioral disorders such as autism spectrum disorders.

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