Eye Contact = Firing Neurons!

May 29, 2022

Neuronal Activation During Eye Gaze Occurs in the Prefrontal Cortex and Amygdala Network

A new Yale study has charted the neuronal response found in different brain regions during eye contact and social gaze interactions. The neurobiology of social perception has been studied before. These previous studies involved conducting brain scans on individuals as they look at static images (e.g., happy faces, angry faces, direct gazes, and averted gazes). However, the current study’s senior author, Steve Chang, wanted to do something different. He set out to study the interactions of two individual minds as they both dynamically and reciprocally extracted information from each other’s eyes. Chang achieved his goal by monitoring the brain activity of monkeys while simultaneously tracking the eye positions of the two animals, enabling him to record an extensive array of neurons as the monkeys spontaneously gazed at each other. Chang and his co-authors found that specific sets of socially tuned neurons fired across multiple brain regions during mutual eye contact. The areas of the brain where the neuronal activations took place gave clues to how the brain assesses the meaning of the gaze. The research team found that the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala were activated during social gaze. Interestingly, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-order learning and decision making, and the amygdala is the center for emotion and valuation. Both of these areas of the brain are disrupted in cases of autism. The study concluded by demonstrating how the brain generates the feelings of being connected during social interactions. This social connectedness most likely occurs in the prefrontal-amygdala network, often impaired in those with an autism spectrum disorder. In the end, this research offers more clues for the reasons behind social deficits experienced in autism.

Original Article

Original Study

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