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Groups and grumps: Study identifies 'sociality' neurons

A University of California, San Diego study has for the first time identified brain cells that influence whether birds of a feather will, or will not, flock together.

Led by James Goodson, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, and detailed in this week's early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research demonstrates that vasotocin neurons in the medial extended amygdala respond differently to social cues in birds that live in colonies compared to their more solitary cousins.

Vasotocin neurons appear, according to the study, to selectively promote positive affiliation. The gregarious species also have greater numbers of the neurons and their baseline activity is about twice as high, putting the birds in a kind of perpetual "social mood."

"These findings," Goodson said, "address the fundamental question of sociality: Why are some animal species highly social while others seem to have little or no tolerance for others?

"And while the observations were made in birds, they should apply to many other animals, including humans, since the cells are present in almost all vertebrates and the brain circuits that regulate the basic forms of social behavior are strikingly similar," he said.

Goodson worked with birds because, with more than 9,200 species and "a dazzling array of social structures," they offer opportunities to study groups of species that differ only in one aspect of social behavior, making it possible to attribute that dimension in this case, sociality to differences in a particular brain function.

Traveling as far as South Africa to collect the appropriate birds, Goodson focused on five species of closely related waxbills and finches: the melba finch, the violet-eared waxbill, the Angolan blue waxbill, the spice finch and the zebra finch. All the birds live in similar habitats, are monogamous pair bonders, exhibit biparental care and breed de
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Contact: Inga Kiderra
ikiderra@ucsd.edu
858-822-0661
University of California - San Diego
23-Oct-2006


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