Sunday, 3 June 2012

Vertebrates Share Brain Circuitry for Social Decisions

The basic decision-making circuitry underlying social behaviors such as fighting and mating is incredibly similar in all vertebrates, from fish to mammals, new research suggests. These networks may be 450 million years old, the researchers said.

This means that while the input (whether, for example, it is sight or smell that the animal uses to find its mate) and output (how it performs its courtship rituals) may be different, the process the brain goes through to decide to pursue a certain mate is the same in many different species of animals, the researchers said.

"How these animals make decisions about whether to fight and how much to escalate their aggression may be made at least in part on pretty similar mechanisms in different species," said study researcher Hans Hofmann, of the University of Texas at Austin.

"It does make sense when you think about it because if you think about the tasks that animals have to solve, whether it is dealing with the risk and challenges of reproductive or other kinds of opportunities, they are fairly similar across species," Hofmann told LiveScience.

Vertebrate brains
The researchers examined decades of research on genes known to be involved in these social behaviors in 88 species of vertebrates — including birds, reptiles, fish and mammals — and used slices of their brains to look at the genes' expression in 12 different brain regions associated with the social decision-making network.

They analyzed this huge data set to see how similar genes expressed in this network look across species. While species within a group –  say, reptiles – were expected to be similar, the researchers also found a large similarity between even far-ranging species, such as mammals and fish.

Because these networks are preserved so far back in the vertebrate lineage, they must have been there since the fish split from four-limbed animals 450 million years ago, Hofmann said.

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