The contributions of the amygdala, orbital frontal cortex and hippocampal formation to primate social cognition

Christopher J Machado, The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston


Deficits in social cognition are prominent symptoms of many human psychiatric disorders, but the origin of such deficits remains largely unknown. To further current knowledge regarding the neural network mediating social cognition, the present research program investigated the individual contributions of two temporal lobe structures, the amygdala and hippocampal formation, and one frontal lobe region, the orbital frontal cortex (Areas 11 and 13), to primate social cognition. Based on previous research, we hypothesized that the amygdala, hippocampal formation and orbital frontal cortex contribute significantly to the formation of new social relationships, but less to the maintenance of familiar ones. Thirty-six male rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) served as subjects, and were divided into four experimental groups: Neurotoxic amygdala lesion (A-ibo, n = 9), neurotoxic or aspiration orbital frontal cortex lesion (O, n = 9), neurotoxic hippocampal formation lesion (H-ibo, n = 9) or sham-operated control (C, n = 9). Six social groups (tetrads) were created, each containing one member from each experimental group. The effect of lesion on established social relationships was assessed during pre- and post-surgical unrestrained social interactions, whereas the effect of lesion on the formation of new relationships was assessed during an additional phase of post-surgical testing with shuffled tetrad membership. Results indicated that these three neural structures each contribute significantly to both the formation and maintenance of social relationships. Furthermore, the amygdala appears to primarily mediate normal responses to threatening social signals, whereas the orbital frontal cortex plays a more global role in social cognition by mediating responses to both threatening and affiliative social signals. By contrast, the hippocampal formation seems to contribute to social cognition indirectly by providing access to previous experience during social judgments. These conclusions were further investigated with three experiments that measured behavioral and physiological (stress hormone) reactivity to threatening stimuli, and three additional experiments that measured subjects' ability to flexibly alter behavioral responses depending on the incentive value of a food reinforcer. Data from these six experiments further confirmed and strengthened the three conclusions originating from the social behavior experiments and, when combined with the current literature, helped to formulate a simple, but testable, theoretical model of primate social cognition.

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Recommended Citation

Machado, Christopher J, "The contributions of the amygdala, orbital frontal cortex and hippocampal formation to primate social cognition" (2004). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3138882.