Structure and Function of the Social Brain in Primates

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP


As social animals, primates rely on a set of brain regions known as the social brain to support socio-cognitive functions. They are thought to be mainly located in the temporal lobe and the medial prefrontal cortex. However, the precise anatomy and function of the systems underlying social behaviour is still under debate. Furthermore, their comparison between species has so far been limited in term of variety of species included and methodology. The aim of this DPhil project is to provide a better description and comparison of the social brain in primates. We will make use of newly developed methods relying on connectivity between regions. Connectivity is fundamental in defining the function of a brain region as it defines its involvement in networks of the brain and constraints its function. Using diffusion tensor imaging, we will investigate the connectivity of the social brain by comparing the temporal lobe white matter fibre tracts (enabling brain regions to communicate with each other) across primate species and across age as well as their association with social parameters. Then, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we will be able to define networks of regions participating together in social tasks in macaques and humans. We will also more precisely investigate the computation and brain activity involved when macaques need to use social information and compare this with similar measure in
humans. This projects will lead to establish an accurate mapping of brain regions and their functions in different primate brains. Overall, using a multi-modal approach across several primate species we hope to contribute to a better understanding of the social brain and its evolution.

BBSRC priority areas:
Systems approaches to the biosciences.

Cross-council priorities:
Brain Science and Mental Health.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
BB/M011224/1 01/10/2015 30/09/2023
1945720 Studentship BB/M011224/1 01/10/2017 31/12/2021 Lea Manon Roumazeilles
Description Work experience week 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact As part of the 'work experience' week programme organised by the WIN, we had year 12 students, interested in brain research, spent the whole day working on an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) experiment, from designing it to running it in the scanner and finally analysing their results.
The day started by a radiographer showing the important safety rules to follow near an MRI scanner as they are powerful magnet after all.
Then, I briefed them on the actual design of an MRI experiment. We discussed the setup comprised of the actual scanner and the metal free necessary accessories such as the screen, response box and the headphones. We went over how the scanner, by being sensitive to the magnetic properties of our blood was able to tell us what happen in the brain during an experiment. But the main focus was on correctly designing the task that was going to be performed by a participant and setting up a sensible analysis.
Then, it was their turn, in small group, to come up with an idea for experiment. A lot of very interesting ideas flew across the room while they chatted to each other, trying to come up with good hypothesis and design. Sadly, we had to turn down some suggestions because we needed to make sure it was feasible with our setup (and ethic!). When each group came to a good understanding of what task they wanted to design, they were introduced to PsychoPy which helped them putting their ideas into a software that would run the task in the scanner. After uploading their stimuli on the software such as rock music or gibberish sentence and making sure that all the timings were correct, the tasks were ready.
It was now time to go to the scanner room and test them on a real participant. One group after the other, they talked to the participant in the scanner, through the interphone, giving their good words for him to perform the task. They were shown how to operate the scanner although the actual thing was left to the radiographer. All tasks worked really well and both participant and students were happy with their encounter with the scanner.
Finally, the results time had come. On a simplified version of the real analysing software they were able to enter all the details and timings of their experiment associated with the data collected in the scanner. Now they had to wait for the analysis to run before being able to reveal if anything had come out of their experiments! During this time, they had the opportunity to match brain scans of different primates to their associated species and to recognise brains with and without pathology. At last, the analysis window displayed its 'finished' message and we started looking through the output. All groups managed to have some meaningful activations in the brain corresponding to their hypothesis. After some hints on how to interpret them, they made a few slides to explain their study and their results and presented them like real researchers to a small audience a few days later.
Overall, everything went on smoothly although they were also faced (not intentionally) with some of the obstacles that we face in our daily life as researchers. I think this was a very good approach, close to the reality, to introduce them to Neuroscience research and I wish I had that opportunity in high school!
All the feedbacks were very positive and they seem to all have enjoyed their day, some said they were now more inclined to go toward research in the future!
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019