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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.”

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