Thursday, January 15, 2009

Social anxiety among macaques (and humans?) explained

ScienceDaily reports this interesting story

Genetic Variation Cues Social Anxiety In Monkeys And Humans

A genetic variation involving the brain chemical serotonin has been found to shape the social behavior of rhesus macaque monkeys, which could provide researchers with a new model for studying autism, social anxiety and schizophrenia. Humans and macaques are the only members of the primate family to have this particular genetic trait.


The original study was published in PLoS One

Serotonin Transporter Genotype Modulates Social Reward and Punishment in Rhesus Macaques

Background

Serotonin signaling influences social behavior in both human and nonhuman primates. In humans, variation upstream of the promoter region of the serotonin transporter gene (5-HTTLPR) has recently been shown to influence both behavioral measures of social anxiety and amygdala response to social threats. Here we show that length polymorphisms in 5-HTTLPR predict social reward and punishment in rhesus macaques, a species in which 5-HTTLPR variation is analogous to that of humans.

Methodology/Principal Findings

In contrast to monkeys with two copies of the long allele (L/L), monkeys with one copy of the short allele of this gene (S/L) spent less time gazing at face than non-face images, less time looking in the eye region of faces, and had larger pupil diameters when gazing at photos of a high versus low status male macaques. Moreover, in a novel primed gambling task, presentation of photos of high status male macaques promoted risk-aversion in S/L monkeys but promoted risk-seeking in L/L monkeys. Finally, as measured by a “pay-per-view” task, S/L monkeys required juice payment to view photos of high status males, whereas L/L monkeys sacrificed fluid to see the same photos.

Conclusions/Significance

These data indicate that genetic variation in serotonin function contributes to social reward and punishment in rhesus macaques, and thus shapes social behavior in humans and rhesus macaques alike.


Since there are so big similarities between humans and macaques in this regard, they probably serve as a good animal model for human behavior, which makes this finding very interesting indeed.

One interesting thing about this, is that there are quite different frequencies of the different genetic variation among different human populations, which could help explaining different social behavior in different cultures.

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