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Happy or angry: Researchers discover brain network that recognizes emotions

Happy or angry, how the brain recognize emotions
Image of neurons captured using a fluorescent microscope. Credit: IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

The Genetics of Cognition research group coordinated by Francesco Papaleo at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) has discovered a brain network present in animals and humans that allows them to recognize others' emotions. These findings, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, pave the way to develop new, more effective therapeutic strategies for neurodevelopmental conditions, such as schizophrenia or autism, wherein such social functions are impaired.

Recognizing and responding appropriately to the emotions expressed by others is a fundamental skill of animals, as it enhances their ability to interact effectively with their counterparts, thereby increasing the probability of survival. Despite its importance, the brain mechanisms underlying this process remain largely unknown, even in humans.

Using state-of-the-art techniques, Papaleo's team discovered a brain circuit involved in these socio-cognitive processes, which had never been studied previously. It consists of a group of specific neuronal cells that connect two distant brain areas: the prefrontal cortex and the retrosplenial cortex.

In humans, the function of this connection was tested through an experiment involving more than 1,000 participants on a volunteer basis. Each subject had to watch a screen where faces with angry, happy or neutral expressions were projected.

During the test, researchers recorded their brain activity with imaging techniques to see which areas of the brain were activated. The results confirmed a correlation between the activity of the two areas, the and the retrosplenial cortex, and the recognition of emotions.

"We are excited by these new results because they deepen our understanding of the brain circuits that encode and, therefore, make us react to others' emotions," stated Francesco Papaleo, coordinator of the Genetics of Cognition laboratory at IIT. "We would like to have a broader view of the way these mechanisms work, particularly how they are altered in psychiatric and .

"Current drugs for treating neurodevelopmental conditions are not selective, affecting many types of neurons without distinction," said Anna Monai, researcher in the Genetics of Cognition laboratory. "The idea is to develop therapeutic strategies targeted toward specific brain circuits, so as to decrease side effects while increasing treatment efficacy."

More information: Daniel Dautan et al, Cortico-cortical transfer of socially derived information gates emotion recognition, Nature Neuroscience (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41593-024-01647-x

Journal information: Nature Neuroscience
Citation: Happy or angry: Researchers discover brain network that recognizes emotions (2024, May 20) retrieved 23 June 2024 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2024-05-happy-angry-brain-network-emotions.html
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