The activity of single neurons in the frontal cortex or prefrontal cortex was sensitive to the identity of individuals that bats and monkeys interacted with, researchers report in two studies. Their work aimed to identify how animals in complex social structures know how to interact with each other, including based on a history of prior interaction. The ability for social animals, including humans, to interact and communicate as a group is essential for their survival. Social interaction is complex – not only must an animal keep track of various vocalizations and direct integrations, it’s also likely that their knowledge of and individual histories with others in the group also needs to be tracked by the brain. However, understanding the neuronal processes that enable such impressive cognitive skills remains largely unexplored, particularly within groups of interacting individuals. Across the two studies, Raymundo Báez-Mendoza and colleagues and Maimon Rose and colleagues evaluated the roles of the prefrontal cortex and the frontal cortex, respectively, in social communication in rhesus monkeys and Egyptian fruit bats, respectively. Mendoza et al. evaluated the interactions between three rhesus macaques sharing apples and found that neurons within the prefrontal cortex represent details of the interaction, including identity context and interaction history. Rose et al. analyzed remotely cortical activity in freely interacting Egyptian fruit bats and similarly discovered that single neurons in the frontal cortex were responsible for distinguishing vocalizations between individuals. “The findings of Rose et al. and Báez-Mendoza et al. are major steps in identifying the neural mechanisms for maneuvering in complex social structures, including those for interacting with others and for knowing the specific identity of the interactors and the history of those interactions,” writes Julia Silwa in a related Perspective. Silwa highlights why, when investigating social intelligence and communication, it’s important to study groups of brains as an interacting unit. “Further research will assess additional dynamical properties of animal and human collectives, including changes that may result from virtual collectives on the internet.”
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