All animals evaluate the salience of external stimuli and integrate them with internal physiological information into adaptive behavior. Natural and sexual selection impinge on these processes, yet our understanding of behavioral decision-making mechanisms and their evolution is still very limited. Insights from mammals indicate that two neural circuits are of crucial importance in this context: the social behavior network and the mesolimbic reward system. Here we review evidence from neurochemical, tract-tracing, developmental, and functional lesion/stimulation studies that delineates homology relationships for most of the nodes of these two circuits across the five major vertebrate lineages: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and teleost fish. We provide for the first time a comprehensive comparative analysis of the two neural circuits and conclude that they were already present in early vertebrates. We also propose that these circuits form a larger social decision-making (SDM) network that regulates adaptive behavior. Our synthesis thus provides an important foundation for understanding the evolution of the neural mechanisms underlying reward processing and behavioral regulation.
Copyright © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.