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Review
. 2006 Dec 29;361(1476):2129-41.
doi: 10.1098/rstb.2006.1935.

Genetic Influences on the Neural Basis of Social Cognition

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Free PMC article
Review

Genetic Influences on the Neural Basis of Social Cognition

David Skuse. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. .
Free PMC article

Abstract

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.

Figures

Figure 1
Figure 1
A representation of the proposed neural systems outlined in the article, which respond to potentially threatening stimuli such as a fearful face. The ventral visual pathway is not shown. The subcortical pathway (e.g. Pasley et al. 2004) is shown, linking superior colliculus with amygdala bilaterally. Amygdala activation on left and right is linked with cognitive processing networks and autonomic responses, respectively. Feedback from the somatic response to threat enhances cognitive processing, possibly mediated by intra-amygdala connectivity (Adolphs et al. 2005). X-linked genes influence the functional integrity of pathways marked by asterisk symbols (Skuse et al. 2005). Pathways influenced by allelic variation in the serotonin transporter gene promoter are indicated by the hash symbol (Heinz et al. 2005; Pezawas et al. 2005). There is a positive functional coupling between the amygdala, the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the ventromedial prefontal cortex, and inhibitory feedback from the caudal ACC. The pathway marked in dashed line is a putative link, which could confound studies of non-conscious response to threat that focus on amygdala-mediated neural activity.

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