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'Shifty-eyed' monkeys offer window into brain's social reflexes

DURHAM, N.C. -- Neurobiologists at Duke University Medical Center have found the strongest evidence yet that monkeys show the same keen "social reflexes" that humans do -- shifting their attention in response to the direction of gaze of another individual. The researchers said their findings mean that monkeys can provide a critically important animal model of how the brain controls what humans pay attention to in social situations.

Such a model would enable scientists to better understand how processing of social attention works in the brain, and how it can go awry in such disorders as autism. Such basic studies, said the neurobiologists, could lead to better treatments for autism and better methods to teach autistic children.

The researchers, post-doctoral fellow Robert Deaner and Assistant Professor Michael Platt, reported their findings in the Sept. 16, 2003, issue of Current Biology. The research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Eye Institute.

In their experiments, the researchers compared the eye movements of humans and rhesus macaque monkeys when they were shown images of monkeys looking either to the left or right.

The researchers would first concentrate the human or monkey test subjects' attention to the center of a computer screen by showing them a yellow square. The subjects would then be shown either another square or an image of a monkey looking either left or right. Immediately after that, the face would disappear and to the left or right on the screen a yellow square would flash. The researchers used a magnetic coil technique to measure with high accuracy and speed the eye movements of the subjects.

Explained Platt, "Our prediction was that if seeing a monkey looking in one direction or another actually changes where you're paying attention, then you should shift your gaze faster if the box appears in the direction in which that monkey face was looking and slower in the othe
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Contact: Dennis Meredith
dennis.meredith@duke.edu
919-681-8054
Duke University
15-Sep-2003


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