The neural basis of social cognition has been the subject of intensive research in both human and non-human primates. Exciting, provocative and yet consistent findings are emerging. A major focus of interest is the role of efferent and afferent connectivity between the amygdala and the neocortical brain regions, now believed to be critical for the processing of social and emotional perceptions. One possible component is a subcortical neural pathway, which permits rapid and preconscious processing of potentially threatening stimuli, and it leads from the retina to the superior colliculus, to the pulvinar nucleus of the thalamus and then to the amygdala. This pathway is activated by direct eye contact, one of many classes of potential threat, and may be particularly responsive to the ‘whites of the eyes’. In humans, autonomic arousal evoked by this stimulus is associated with the activity in specific cortical regions concerned with processing visual information from faces. The integrated functioning of these pathways is modulated by one or more X-linked genes, yet to be identified. The emotional responsiveness of the amygdala, and its associated circuits, to social threat is also influenced by functional polymorphisms in the promoter of the serotonin transporter gene. We still do not have a clear account of how specific allelic variation, in candidate genes, increases susceptibility to developmental disorders, such as autism, or psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety or depressive illness. However, the regulation of emotional responsiveness to social cues lies at the heart of the problem, and recent research indicates that we may be nearing a deeper and more comprehensive understanding.
One contribution of 14 to a Theme Issue ‘The neurobiology of social recognition, attraction and bonding’.
- © 2006 The Royal Society