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Hamster study shows how our brains recognize other individuals

Imagine seeing a former high school classmate you always wanted to know better. Then imagine seeing that kid who used to push you in the hallways. Do you react differently? What happens in your brain during these encounters?

In fact, different areas of the brain react differently when recognizing others, depending on the emotions attached to the memory, a team of Cornell University research psychologists has found. The team, led by professor of psychology Robert Johnston, has been conducting experiments to study individual recognition.

But rather than crash high school reunions with an MRI machine in tow, the researchers stayed in their laboratory and created social encounters between golden hamsters. Then they examined the animals' brains for evidence of those encounters.

Last year Johnston's team conducted the first experiment to demonstrate the neural basis of individual recognition in hamsters and identify which areas of the brain play a role. The results were published in the Dec. 7, 2005, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Better understanding these mechanisms, Johnston said, may be of central importance in treating certain forms of autism, Asperger syndrome, psychopathy and social anxiety disorders.

"This ability to recognize individuals underlies social behavior in virtually all vertebrates and some invertebrates as well," explained Johnston. "Humans clearly have an incredible ability to recognize, remember and store huge amounts of information about individuals -- even individuals we have never actually met. This ability is the core of circuits that one might call the social brain."

Johnston's team uses hamsters to study recognition because their brains are strikingly similar to ours. "They are more sophisticated than you might think," he noted.

In the latest experiment, a male hamster encountered two individuals that he knew equally well but had different interactions with the previous day: a male that defeated him
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Contact: Blaine Friedlander
bpf2@cornell.edu
607-254-8093
Cornell University News Service
8-Mar-2006


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