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How the brain regulates social cues and support systems in primates and humans

Social support among primates, including humans, is fundamental for survival and success within their societies. Navigating the complex web of social relationships – identifying allies, foes, and competitors – is critical for gaining an evolutionary advantage.

Consequently, researchers across primatology, neuroscience, and computational biology are captivated by this elaborate exchange system.

It’s based on reciprocity and quid pro quo interactions. Yet, despite keen interest, the brain’s methods for processing and reacting to social cues are still largely enigmatic.

Bridging brains and behavior in primates

Enter Michael L. Platt, a neuroscientist from the University of Pennsylvania with a rich background in primatology and human behavior studies. Platt and his team’s pioneering work illuminates the brain circuits behind support and empathy.

The research marks a significant leap in understanding how primates, including humans, navigate their social environments.

Building on this foundation, Platt articulated the essence of their findings. “We’ve identified a distributed neurophysiological record of social dynamics, laying a potential computational groundwork for community life in primates, our species included,” said Platt.

“This study not only highlights the neural basis of social support and empathy but also heralds a new, more natural and ethical approach to studying primate behavior.”

Observing brain activity in primates

Camille Testard, the paper’s lead author and a former PhD student in Platt’s Lab, contrasts their methodology with traditional research approaches. Previous studies often fell into one of two categories: controlled laboratory experiments or observations of primates in their natural habitats.

“Our work bridges these two worlds. By employing minimally invasive, wireless neuro-recording devices, we’ve observed the brain activity of monkeys in a more free-ranging setting,” said Testard .

The team observed two male monkeys in social scenarios with their female partners and others. Notably, the researchers equipped the monkeys with tiny, FDA-approved neural implants targeting specific brain regions involved in visual processing and more complex social interactions.

Neural planning in primates

The findings were surprising. The neuronal activity in both targeted brain areas was remarkably similar. This suggests a unified brain effort in processing social information and predicting behaviors, based on past interactions and present context.

“This insight into neural planning is unprecedented,” noted Platt, highlighting the integrated brain functions in social navigation.

Empathy and support in neural circuits

Another key finding was the “mirroring” effect in stress responses, showing a neural basis for empathy and support. The researchers witnessed this mirroring.effect in the stress response when the female partners received a glare from the experimenter.

“It’s mirroring in the sense that the male is exhibiting a stress response that would suggest he was the one who had an encounter with the experimenter, and this effect may be critical for empathy,” explained Testard.

Moreover, the researchers meticulously documented grooming behaviors, revealing a neural accounting system of social exchanges. “Our weeks-long observation showed a brain-based ledger of social transactions, mirroring the tit-for-tat behavior observed in grooming,” said Testard.

Expanding the social spectrum

Platt suggests that these insights could illuminate aspects of human social interactions, particularly when the balance of social give-and-take is disrupted, likening it to the dynamics of uneven text message exchanges between friends.

Looking to the future, Platt envisions expanding the study to include more monkeys, thereby capturing a fuller picture of the complex social webs they navigate. The team is also keen on exploring the role of prosocial hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin in these interactions.

“With the nuanced, second-by-second analysis of brain activity, we’re just scratching the surface of understanding the neural underpinnings of social behavior,” said Platt. “This research paves the way for exciting new directions, and we’re eager to uncover what further secrets lie in the primate, and by extension, the human brain.”

Social support among primates

Social support among primates is a complex and multifaceted aspect of their behavior, deeply rooted in their evolutionary history and critical for their survival and well-being. 

Primates, including humans, exhibit a range of social support mechanisms that enhance group cohesion, provide protection against predators, and assist in the rearing of offspring. This social support manifests in various forms, such as grooming, sharing food, forming alliances, and providing care for the young and the injured.


Grooming is one of the most visible forms of social support among primates. It serves not only to clean the fur and remove parasites but also to establish and maintain social bonds. 

Through grooming, primates show affection, reduce stress, and reinforce social hierarchies and relationships within the group. This activity fosters a sense of belonging and mutual trust, which is crucial for the group’s harmony and cooperation.

Sharing food 

Sharing food is another vital aspect of social support. Primates often share food with their kin and allies, strengthening bonds and ensuring the survival of closely related individuals and favored partners. 

This behavior also teaches young primates the skills and norms of food sharing within the group, which is essential for their social development and integration.

Forming alliances 

Forming alliances is particularly prominent in some primate species. These alliances can be seen in both competitive and cooperative contexts, such as defending territory, gaining access to mates, or securing higher positions within the social hierarchy. 

Alliances are often based on kinship, friendship, or reciprocal relationships, highlighting the complexity of primate social structures.

Group care

Caring for the young and the injured is a testament to the empathetic capabilities of primates. Mothers, and sometimes other group members, provide extensive care to their offspring, including feeding, protection, and teaching. 

This care extends to injured or ill members of the group, where they may receive grooming, food, and protection, showcasing a level of empathy and understanding of the needs of others.

Group survival 

These social support systems are not just beneficial for the individual but are crucial for the survival of the group. They enhance group cohesion, facilitate conflict resolution, and improve the overall fitness of the group by ensuring that members are cared for, protected, and integrated into the social fabric. 

The study of social support among primates not only provides insights into the social dynamics of our closest evolutionary relatives but also sheds light on the origins and importance of social support in human societies.

The study is published in the journal Nature.


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