Cookies on this website
We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Continue' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) has awarded a major four-year grant to Professor Mark Buckley and Dr Fabian Grabenhorst to conduct pioneering new studies of the systems neuroscience that underlies social cognition.

Our brains are tuned for social information. From the moment of birth, our social partners capture our interest. Observing others not only helps us optimise our own decisions ('social learning'), but also helps us understand our partners' minds and predict their intentions and behaviour ('mentalising'). These social-cognitive abilities are profoundly impaired in autism, social anxiety, schizophrenia and related human conditions, due to dysfunction of specific brain circuits. Yet, we know very little about how neurons in these brain circuits process information to enable social cognition and social interactions.

With this project, we hope to determine how neurons in a number of different specific frontal and temporal lobe areas process different types of social cognition, and which of these brain areas are essential for successful social behaviours. We hope to understand how these brain areas causally influence each other in dynamic ways during behaviour.

Fabian said: "Previously, we found activity patterns in amygdala neurons that seemed to simulate the decision processes of social partners. In this new project, we are excited to test whether these 'simulation neurons' are also sensitive to the partner's unique reward preferences and knowledge, even when these differ from one's own."

Mark added: ”My lab has maintained a long-standing interest in understanding the mechanistic underpinnings of optimal rule-guided and memory-guided behaviour. Optimising the value of social interaction often requires one to instigate appropriate abstract behavioural rules given the context, and indeed to remember that rule. However, one also needs to know when to dynamically adapt one’s rule- or memory-guided behaviours depending on the changed context. Hence it is exciting to extend these state-of-the-art systems neuroscience studies into the social realm through this new collaboration between my lab and that of Fabian Grabenhorst.

This MRC award recognises how important it is to both understand how the brain operates to mediate normal social cognition, but also to advance understanding of what goes wrong in dysfunctional or compromised brains. Increased scientific knowledge of both will likely have marked impact on society given the prevalence of disorders that impair social-cognitive abilities.”

Similar stories

Oxford researchers part of major UK initiative to understand chronic pain

Oxford pain researchers are playing a major role in a new multi-million pound research programme launched by a consortium of funders, including UKRI, Versus Arthritis, Eli Lilly and the Medical Research Foundation.

Unique study of vascular disease reaches 20th anniversary

The only project of its kind anywhere that studies patients with all types of acute vascular events - including strokes, heart attacks, aneurysms - in order to develop better diagnostic tests and treatments celebrates its 20th anniversary this month.

DPAG launches “Body, Brain, Behavior: Three Views and a Conversation” in Oxford

The Oxford Book Launch 'Body Brain Behavior - The Need For Conversations' brought together three world leading scientist authors, Professor Zoltán Molnár and Yale Professors Tamas Horvath and Joy Hirsch, with Oxford's neuroscience community on Thursday 7 April 2022.

Little understood brain region linked to how we perceive pain

A new review paper, published in the journal Brain, has shown that a poorly understood region of the brain called the claustrum may play an important role in how we experience pain.