A Larger Amygdala May Mean a Larger Social Network

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New research suggests that the amygdala, a structure located deep within the temporal lobe, may be the key to living a rich and varied social life.

Researchers have discovered that the amygdala, a small almond shaped structure deep within the temporal lobe, is important to a rich and varied social life among humans, according to a study published in Nature Neuroscience. These results are similar to previous findings in other primate species, which compared the size and complexity of social groups across those species.

“We know that primates who live in larger social groups have a larger amygdala, even when controlling for overall brain size and body size,” said Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and the study’s lead author. “We considered a single primate species, humans, and found that the amygdala volume positively correlated with the size and complexity of social networks in adult humans.”

The researchers also performed an exploratory analysis of all the subcortical structures within the brain and found no compelling evidence of a similar relationship between any other subcortical structure and the social life of humans. The volume of the amygdala was not related to other social variables in the life of humans such as life support or social satisfaction.

“This link between amygdala size and social network size and complexity was observed for both older and younger individuals and for both men and women,” said Bradford C. Dickerson, MD, of the MGH Department of Neurology and the Martinos Center for Biomedical Research, and co-author of the study. “This link was specific to the amygdala, because social network size and complexity were not associated with the size of other brain structures.”

The researchers asked 58 participants to report information about the size and the complexity of their social networks by completing standard questionnaires that measured the total number of regular social contacts that each participant maintained, as well the number of different groups to which these contacts belonged. Participants, ranging in age from 19 to 83 years, also received a magnetic resonance imaging brain scan to gather information about the structure of various brain structures, including the volume of the amygdala.

The results of the study were consistent with the “social brain hypothesis,” which suggests that the human amygdala might have evolved partially to deal with an increasingly complex social life, according to Barrett. “Further research is in progress to try to understand more about how the amygdala and other brain regions are involved in social behavior in humans,” she said. “We and other researchers are also trying to understand how abnormalities in these brain regions may impair social behavior in neurologic and psychiatric disorders.”

Source: Mass General News

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