Molecular Roots of the Social Brain

A new $3 million grant from the Simons Foundation to the Institute for Genomic Biology will fund a multidisciplinary collaborative effort by Gene Networks in Neural & Developmental Plasticity (GNDP) theme members to search for similarities in the ways that the brains of many different species, including our own, produce social behavior.  “Our goal,” said GNDP Theme Leader and Principal Investigator Lisa Stubbs, “is to tie the truths we extract from each species together, into a fundamental model of how animal brains respond to social stimulus.”

Just as there is diversity in the physical structure of animals, there is great variation in the structure of their social interactions with other members of their own species.  These interactions can often be grouped into the same broad categories—aggression, mate selection, care of young—but the dynamics vary widely between species.  A female prairie vole mates with one male for life; in contrast, a female mouse shows no such fidelity, while a female stickleback fish allows herself to be chased away by her mate, and a praying mantis female might make a meal of hers.

On a basic level, though, there are shared principles of social behavior across species, just as there are in anatomy.  Animals rely on information from others to guide their behavior during social interactions, and that information, received as primary input, is processed by sets of connected neurons that operate via molecular actions that are deeply conserved, even if the identities of those sets of neurons are not.

IGB researchers will be taking advantage of these commonalities—shared categories of social interactions, and conserved brain biochemistry—to ask whether there are also shared gene actions that guide social behavior.  Alison Bell, Associate Professor of Animal Biology, described the planned study: “we will measure the response to what we think are comparable behaviors in honey bees, stickleback fish, and mice, and look for responses in the same genes, networks, or pathways in each of these organisms.”