One approach to begin understanding how the brain supports a complex array of social behaviors is to study innate, evolutionarily conserved social behaviors. Observational learning is one such social behavior that offers a distinct advantage for survival and is thus highly conserved across various species including humans, non-human primates, and rodents. Observational learning can be defined as an animal's ability to learn about its environment through observing the direct experience of another animal. Various studies provide evidence that the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) are necessary for observational learning. However, the temporal dynamics of these regions during observational learning and the manner in which they interact with each other to support observational learning remains unknown. This project proposes the use of a mouse behavioral model to characterize ACC neural activity during observational learning. It also aims to define the role of ACC neurons that project to the amygdala during observational learning. Lastly, the project will determine the necessity of ACC projections to the amygdala during observational learning. We will employ rodent behavioral analysis techniques, in vivo single unit electrophysiology, optogenetics, and state-space statistical approaches in order to achieve these aims. This project is aligned with the National Institute of Mental Health's strategy to understand the basic brain-behavior processes that provide the foundation for understanding mental disorders. The results from this project will help to provide a basic understanding of how the brain processes social information and how this might be perturbed in mental illnesses such as autism, social anxiety disorder, anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia.
Mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia impair social behavior, while some illnesses such as autism spectrum disorders and William's syndrome have very specific social impairments (Kennedy et al 2012; Losh et al 2009; MB Stein and Stein 2008). Understanding the neural mechanisms of evolutionarily conserved, innate social behaviors such as observational learning, may help us discover the building blocks of the social functions that are perturbed in psychiatric disease (Adolphs et al 2009).