Scientists discover neurons that 'mirror' the attention of others

May 18, 2009,

Whether a monkey is looking to the left or merely watching another monkey looking that way, the same neurons in his brain are firing, according to researchers at the Duke University Medical Center.

"We speculate that the neurons' activity may lie beneath critical , such as joint attention," said Michael Platt, Ph.D., Duke professor of and and senior author of the study published in the . "If social inputs to the neurons are disrupted, that might contribute to the social deficits seen in autism and other disorders."

People spontaneously follow the gaze of other people, and this joint attention helps promote social bonding, enhance learning, and may even be necessary for the development of language. People who can't do these things are at a decided disadvantage, and may fail to develop normal patterns of , Platt said.

In fact, the impulse to follow the direction of another monkey's eyes was so strong, monkeys sometimes strayed from the assigned light detection task, for which they were rewarded with juice, and instead followed the gaze of a monkey they saw in the projected image.

Previous studies have reported the existence of so-called "mirror" neurons that respond both when monkeys make a particular movement, such as reaching for a peanut, and when the monkeys observe someone else doing the same thing. Given the importance of joint attention and gaze following for both monkeys and humans, many scientists predicted that neurons that mirror observed gaze would be found someday—but until the study by the Duke scientists such had never been described.

The attention-mirroring neurons turned out to be located in the parietal lobe, a part of the brain dedicated to and attention. This is important because it suggests that reading someone else's attention involves the same brain circuits that control one's own attention, Platt said.

In the experiment, the researchers first established whether a particular neuron responded when the monkey himself gazed to the left or to the right. Then they presented the monkey with photos of monkeys randomly looking left or right, thus matching the preferred direction of the neuron on half of trials.

Images of monkey faces randomly lit up for 100 to 800 milliseconds (about the time it takes a fastball to leave the pitcher's hand and cross home plate) and then a yellow box appeared randomly either on the left or right.

Monkeys had to shift their gaze from the center to the box as quickly as possible and maintain fixation for at least 300 ms to receive a juice reward. Typically, monkeys were faster to shift gaze to the box when they had previously seen a picture of a monkey looking in that direction—presumably because their own attention had shifted in the same direction.

The researchers learned that the time period in which they saw the response by the neuron was also the time period in which they saw the biggest behavioral effect. "If the monkey saw another monkey for 100 or 200 milliseconds looking in a certain direction, that's when he is most likely to follow the gaze of that monkey or share the monkey's attention," said Platt.

Despite widespread speculation about mirror neurons in humans and what they might do, the only studies on mirror neurons to date have been performed in , Platt said.

"We argue that there is a system in place that is devoted to taking in important social information and using it to guide one's behavior," Platt said. "It is a very simple type of imitative behavior that these neurons seem to be driving. They act like mirror neurons, but for attention, not for an overt action."

Source: Duke University Medical Center (news : web)

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

Recording a thought's fleeting trip through the brain

January 17, 2018
University of California, Berkeley neuroscientists have tracked the progress of a thought through the brain, showing clearly how the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain coordinates activity to help us act in response ...

Midbrain 'start neurons' control whether we walk or run

January 17, 2018
Locomotion comprises the most fundamental movements we perform. It is a complex sequence from initiating the first step, to stopping when we reach our goal. At the same time, locomotion is executed at different speeds to ...

Miles Davis is not Mozart: The brains of jazz and classical pianists work differently

January 16, 2018
Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: "No, that's hilarious. [...] It's like ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (2) May 18, 2009
After his death Einstein's brain was taken a part and analyzed by an anatomist. He found Einsteins parietal lobe was unusually large. The parietal lobe is responsible in matters of high level processing and abstract thinking. Its' interesting
that monkey's parietal lobes are devoted to social behavior like shared observations and joint responses to other monkeys. Thay also say that those parts are causing animals and people to identify with each other. Maybe that is also high level thought.
not rated yet Aug 13, 2009
Interesting stuff. I also heard NeilFarbstein, that Einstein's brain was 15% larger than the rest of the population's.
The parietal lobe is responsible in matters of high level processing and abstract thinking.

-Is there a way to measure that part of your brain without having to die :P?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.