Neurons found in the brain for friends and family

The ability to recognize faces is so important to us that our brain even has a special area for this: among the many visual stimuli, it analyzes only those related to the face. But we come across different faces: there are generally unfamiliar, there are acquaintances, but not very much, and there are colleagues, friends and relatives. That is, the faces of those whom we know well, we do not just recognize – we recognize them. Since the 60s of the last century, neuroscientists have assumed that there is a special “grandmother’s neuron” in the brain for this – because it was believed that there is some kind of separate cell that reacts to the face of a conditional grandmother; besides her, there is the same separate neuron for mom, for dad, etc. But it was impossible to find the “grandmother’s neuron”.

In an article in Science staff Rockefeller University write that the “grandmother’s neuron” really is. More precisely, “grandmother’s neurons” are a whole group of cells that all together react to close people, that is, there is no such thing that a single neuron specializes in one particular person. They are located in the temporal pole – the front of the temporal lobe of the cortex. Previously, it was possible to establish that the temporal pole is involved in face recognition, but now it was possible to find out exactly how it is involved.

Experiments were staged with rhesus monkeys (for monkeys, as for us, it is also very important to be able to recognize faces, and in the monkey’s brain, like in ours, special departments have appeared for this). The macaques were shown photographs of other monkeys: they knew some personally, while others knew only from photographs. Monkey brain activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging. It turned out that neurons in the temporal pole respond to familiar faces much stronger and much faster than to unfamiliar ones. Moreover, it was personal acquaintance that was important for these neurons. Even if the monkey was shown someone’s photo many times, and the features of the person in the photo should have become familiar to her for a long time, nevertheless, the neurons of the temporal pole reacted more strongly to the person with whom the monkey encountered live.

Researchers have noted the dual nature of “dating neurons.” On the one hand, they behaved like cells dealing with sensory signals, like a visual analyzer – they instantly reacted to what was in front of the monkeys’ eyes. On the other hand, they worked like memory cells, because such an instantaneous reaction took place only when someone’s familiar physiognomy appeared in front of the monkeys’ eyes. Now it would be interesting to find out how exactly the “neurons of personal acquaintance” (or “neurons of the grandmother’s zone”) encode familiar faces, whether they turn to other brain stores of information or cope on their own.

And of course, it would be interesting to find out how such cells work in our country. Now we see a lot of faces on the Internet, not only in the form of Instagram photos, but also in video chats. And there we are met by both old acquaintances, relatives and friends, and generally unfamiliar. Obviously, the “neurons of personal acquaintance” must somehow adapt to a new situation, when it happens that we often see our acquaintances in some Zoom, rather than live.

Source: Автономная некоммерческая организация "Редакция журнала «Наука и жизнь»" by

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