The Origins of Social Behavior: Understanding Shared Brain Responses

In most species — from honeybees to humans — social behaviors are essential to an animal’s ability to survive. Yet it is not clear just how animals’ brains receive and process social stimuli, and whether those responses are the same across species.

3595553233_95473c3dc2 copyTo address those questions, the Simons Foundation’s Life Sciences division awarded Gene Robinson and Lisa Stubbs, both of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), a grant for their project, Molecular Roots of the Social Brain. Robinson, IGB’s director, and Stubbs, the project’s principle investigator, will lead a multidisciplinary, collaborative effort by University of Illinois’ Gene Networks in Neural and Developmental Plasticity group (GNDP) — whose main purpose is to understand conserved regulatory networks — to study and compare brain responses to social stimuli in several different species.

The GNDP team will examine how relevant gene networks in the brains of mice, stickleback fish and honeybees — three species that exhibit intriguing and distinct social behaviors — respond to social stimuli. This form of experience-based learning is essential to survival. From there, the researchers will compare the gene network responses to determine their similarities to one another and to the human brain.

“This project explores the marriage of genetics and environment that everybody talks about, but we don’t yet have a tool to analyze,” says Gerald D. Fischbach, chief scientist at the Simons Foundation. Robinson, Fischbach explains, has a uniquely quantitative approach that could create a novel methodology for studying these issues. He and his team will focus on quantitating molecular responses to social stimuli and on creating computational methods to compare gene networks of different species.

If the same or similar gene networks are shared by these three species, researchers will gain insight to conserved traits that may have evolved from an ancient common ancestor. And those shared traits could have implications for understanding not only human brain function, but also its relationship to social behavior.

Although the project will attempt to address key topics in biology, it may also impact what is known about mental disorders such as autism.

Fischbach and others at the foundation are excited to support to the work of GNDP. “We hope we’ll be able to approach the question of social cognition, including empathy, cooperation and organized society, and begin to study it in a more quantitative way,” says Fischbach. “I see this grant as one of the first steps in that direction.”

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