Watching primates make social decisions in the lab and in the field

Feb 19, 2014 by Ashley Mooney
Lauren Brent's field work consists of long days spent following macaques, making notes of their social interactions, a technique pioneered by Jane Goodall.

Both in the lab and on a tropical island, primate behaviors can shed light on social-decision making.

To fully understand the biology of social-decision making, Michael Platt, director of the Duke Institute for Brain Science, conducts lab work at Duke and field research an island off the coast of Puerto Rico called Cayo Santiago. His research focuses on understanding both the physiological and social aspects of decision making.

"Our brains are exquisitely tuned to making [social] decisions and acquiring the information to inform them," Platt said. "When these processes go awry, as occurs in disorders like autism, schizophrenia or anxiety disorders, the consequences can be devastating."

Platt's group uses rhesus macaques as model animals because of their strong behavioral, physiological and neurobiological similarity to humans. But understanding how the monkey brain—and thus the human brain—works requires both laboratory-based biological information and social studies in a natural environment.

Researchers can combine the knowledge they gain from lab and field studies to create a holistic picture of the biological basis of behavior, said Lauren Brent, associate research fellow at the University of Exeter who did her post-doc with Platt at Duke.

Watching primates make social decisions in the lab and in the field
Macaques on Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico have lived in a state of nature since their ancestors were released from a lab many generations ago. They're still studied intensively but non-invasively. Credit: Lauren Brent

Lab studies are best suited for quantitative, repeatable studies in which variables can be precisely controlled, Platt said. On the other hand, field studies emphasize external validity and an animal's response in its natural conditions, but are not suitable for determining precise measurements of internal processes.

In the lab, Platt's group studies the neural mechanisms that mediate prosocial and antisocial decisions, Platt said. They can also study the ways in which humans can enhance prosocial decisions using pharmacological or behavioral interventions.

On Cayo, the researchers are exploring the genetic factors that shape individual differences in social behavior and decision-making in free-living . They use observations, behavioral experiments and blood and fecal samples to study the monkeys non-invasively.

"The project on Cayo and the work that goes on the lab are complementary in the best sense because we can do things on Cayo that we can't do in the lab," Brent said. "For example, we have hundreds of monkeys, of known pedigree, interacting with each other in a purely spontaneous and naturalistic fashion. You can't get that in a lab."

Although working with free-ranging monkeys can produce more naturalistic results, Brent noted that there are drawbacks to working in the field.

"Working with monkeys in the field is painstaking," Brent said. "You need to be physically fit, but moreover it is a mentally demanding thing to do because you need to pay close attention to everything that is going on in the group at all times so that the data are as finely detailed and accurate as possible."

Brent found that a monkey's position in its social network is heritable and can impact the survival of its infants. She determined a monkey's social connections using grooming and spatial proximity, or how long one monkey spends sitting next to other monkeys.

"Regardless of how big your family is, monkeys who are better connected in the grooming network have greater reproductive success," Brent said. "Together, these results suggest that social interactions have adaptive benefits and are something on which selection has acted."

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