The ability to recognize emotions in others and adapt one's behavior accordingly is critical for functioning in any social context. This ability is impaired in several psychiatric disorders, such as autism and psychopathy. Recent work has identified the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) among other brain regions involved in this process. Neural recording studies have shown that neurons in ACC are modulated by reward or shock when delivered to a conspecific and when experienced first-hand. Because previous studies do not vary reward and shock within the same experiment, it has been unclear whether the observed activity reflects how much attention is being paid to outcomes delivered to a conspecific or the valence associated with those stimuli. To address this issue, we recorded from ACC as rats performed a Pavlovian task that predicted whether reward, shock, or nothing would be delivered to the rat being recorded from or a conspecific located in the opposite chamber. Consistent with previous reports, we found that the firing of ACC neurons was modulated by aversive stimuli delivered to the recording rat and their conspecific. Activity of some of these neurons genuinely reflected outcome identity (i.e., reward or shock); however, the population of neurons as a whole responded similarly for both reward and shock, as well as for cues that predicted their occurrence (i.e., reward > neutral and shock > neutral; attention). These results suggest that ACC can process information about outcomes (i.e., identity and recipient) in the service of promoting attention in some social contexts.
Keywords: Pavlovian; anterior cingulate cortex; distress; electrophysiology; empathy; pro-social; rat; reward; social behavior.
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