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Neurons Dictate Which Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Research might yield insights into overcoming shyness, other social problems, in people

FRIDAY, Oct. 27, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- When you meet someone new, what makes you put out your hand and say "hi," or skulk away without even a smile?

The answer lies somewhere in your brain. And new research into the neural circuitry of both gregarious and antisocial birds may help scientists pinpoint exactly where in the human brain people make assessments and decisions about strangers.

Ultimately, the findings about the structure of the birds' brains could help researchers arrive at new ways to treat shyness and other social problems, said study co-author James Goodson, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego.

"There is a hope that as we learn more about this neural circuitry, we'll be able to design therapies that can specifically target social behavior and alleviate symptoms associated with things like social anxiety," he said.

According to Goodson, researchers have a general idea about which part of the brain governs social behavior -- whether in animals or people. But, he said, scientists have had a hard time determining what exactly happens in the organ.

That's where the birds come in. In the new study, Goodson and his colleagues examined the brain tissue of different bird species -- finches and waxbills from Africa -- after the birds met birds of the same gender that they didn't know.

"Social birds are naturally just not too aggressive with other individuals," Goodson said. By contrast, "territorial birds attack birds."

The researchers found that the brains of birds from the more social species are better equipped to handle chemical signals that seem to promote bonding between animals. In other words, their brains are essentially built to make them friendly.

Specifically, the researchers found that after the birds viewed a same-sex member of their own species through a wire barrier, activity within one group of vasotocin neurons -- located in a part of the brain called the medial extended amygdala -- increased significantly in the gregarious species. In the antisocial species, however, it decreased.

The sociability of humans appears to be based in a primitive area of the brain called the basal forebrain. The trick is to figure out how to reach that part of the brain in people with mental illness without affecting the entire brain and causing side-effects, Goodson said.

"The more specifically we can identify groups of neurons, it'll give us better targets where we can influence what we want to influence and not have all the negative side effects."

The study findings are published in this week's early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Teige P. Sheehan, an assistant professor of psychology at Brown University who's familiar with the study findings, said he was impressed by the research. While scientists understand what some brain regions do, studies like this give researchers even more insight, he said.

"If we're limited to knowing there's this one brain region that serves a great many functions, we might not be able to manipulate its activity," he said.

More information

For advice on coping with shyness, visit Columbia University.

SOURCES: James Goodson, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, University of California, San Diego; Teige P. Sheehan, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, Brown University, Providence, R.I.; Oct. 23-27, 2006, early online edition, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
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