Effects of early and late lesion of orbital frontal cortex on visual processing of faces in rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta)

Eugena Pixley Mitchell, The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston


Many mental disorders disrupt social skills, yet few studies have examined how the brain processes social information. Functional neuroimaging, neuroconnectivity and electrophysiological studies suggest that orbital frontal cortex plays important roles in social cognition, including the analysis of information from faces, which are important cues in social interactions. Studies in humans and non-human primates show that damage to orbital frontal cortex produces social behavior impairments, including abnormal aggression, but these studies have failed to determine whether damage to this area impairs face processing. In addition, it is not known whether damage early in life is more detrimental than damage in adulthood. This study examined whether orbital frontal cortex is necessary for the discrimination of face identity and facial expressions, and for appropriate behavioral responses to aggressive (threatening) facial expressions. Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) received selective lesions of orbital frontal cortex as newborns or adults. As adults, these animals were compared with sham-operated controls on their ability to discriminate between faces of individual monkeys and between different facial expressions of emotion. A passive visual paired-comparison task with standardized rhesus monkey face stimuli was designed and used to assess discrimination. In addition, looking behavior toward aggressive expressions was assessed and compared with that of normal control animals. The results showed that lesion of orbital frontal cortex (1) may impair discrimination between faces of individual monkeys, (2) does not impair facial expression discrimination, and (3) changes the amount of time spent looking at aggressive (threatening) facial expressions depending on the context. The effects of early and late lesions did not differ. Thus, orbital frontal cortex appears to be part of the neural circuitry for recognizing individuals and for modulating the response to aggression in faces, and the plasticity of the immature brain does not allow for recovery of these functions when the damage occurs early in life. This study opens new avenues for the assessment of rhesus monkey face processing and the neural basis of social cognition, and allows a better understanding of the nature of the neuropathology in patients with mental disorders that disrupt social behavior, such as autism.

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Recommended Citation

Mitchell, Eugena Pixley, "Effects of early and late lesion of orbital frontal cortex on visual processing of faces in rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta)" (2007). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3256556.