At some point, everyone experiences the zing of first making eye contact with a cute girl or guy sitting across a crowded coffee shop or bar. But what causes that feeling of special connection? Researchers presenting at the Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans this week say it may be due to newly discovered “eye cells” located in the amygdala, or the part of the brain responsible for social interactions and processing emotions.
As the New Scientist explains, the intriguing neuron first made itself apparent in a Rhesus macaque. To find the new cell, the researchers placed several electrodes around the amygdala region of the macaque, which allowed them to record activity in individual neurons while the animal watched a video featuring another macaque. The team also simultaneously tracked the macaque’s gaze.
The researchers identified 151 separate neurons, but only 23 of them fired when the macaque looked into the eyes of the other macaque. Out of those 23, four neurons fired more when the macaque in the video appeared to return their subject’s gaze, as if the two were making eye contact. The researchers dubbed these four neurons “eye cells.”
“These are cells that have been tuned by evolution to look at the eye, and they extract information about who you are, and most importantly, are you making eye contact with me,” the researchers speculated.
Whether these exist in humans still remains to be seen. First the researchers plan to discover more about the eye cells by experimenting with how the so-called love hormone, oxytocin, changes the macaque’s neural reaction to social bonding. If humans do turn out to possess similar cells, the researchers speculate, it may be that they are at the root of symptoms typical of some disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia, which affect eye contact and social interactions. Finding the physical basis behind such symtoms could help scientists eventually develop treatments.
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