‘Mindreading’ neurons simulate decisions of social partners



Scientists have identified special types of brain cells that may allow us to simulate the decision-making processes of others, thereby reconstructing their state of mind and predicting their intentions. Dysfunction in these ‘simulation neurons’ may help explain difficulties with social interactions in conditions such as autism and social anxiety.

Simulation neurons are important building blocks for social cognition.

Fabian Grabenhorst

Researchers at the University of Cambridge identified the previously-unknown neuron type, which they say actively and spontaneously simulates mental decision processes when social partners learn from one another.
The study, published today in Cell, suggests that these newly-termed ‘simulation neurons’ – found in the amygdala, a collection of nerve cells in the temporal lobe of the brain – allow animals (and potentially also humans) to reconstruct their social partner’s state of mind and thereby predict their intentions.
The researchers go on to speculate that if simulation neurons became dysfunctional this could restrict social cognition, a symptom of autism. By contrast, they suggest overactive neurons could result in exaggerated simulation of what others might be thinking, which may play a role in social anxiety.
The study’s lead author, Dr Fabian Grabenhorst from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, says: “We started out looking for neurons that might be involved in social learning. We were surprised to find that amygdala neurons not only learn the value of objects from social observation but actually use this information to simulate a partner’s decisions.”
Simulating others’ decisions is a sophisticated cognitive process that is rooted in social learning. By observing a partner’s foraging choices, for instance, we learn which foods are valuable and worth choosing. Such knowledge not only informs our own decisions but also helps us predict the future decisions of our partner.
Psychologists and philosophers have long suggested that simulation is the mechanism by which humans understand each other’s minds. Yet, the neural basis for this complex process has remained unclear. The amygdala is well known for its diverse roles in social behaviour and has been implicated in autism. Until now, however, it was unknown whether amygdala neurons also contribute to advanced social cognition, such as simulating others’ decisions.

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Image: Location of neurons predicting partner’s choices superimposed on a stained section through one animal’s amygdala. Colours indicate different nuclei

Credit: Fabian Grabenhorst

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge

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