How does our brain recognize the feelings of others?

Understanding how to recognize emotions is a fascinating journey into the complex meanderings of the brain. Emotions serve as a living canvas through which we experience and navigate the world, influencing our thoughts, behaviors, and interactions. From the joy of laughing together to the sting of a heartfelt goodbye, emotions color every aspect of our lives. However, behind these rich experiences lies a complex neural symphony orchestrated by the brain.

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Cognitive Genetics research group coordinated by Dr. Francesco Papalio from the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) Discover the brain network found in animals and humans, which allows you to recognize the feelings of others. Research published in the journal Natural Neuroscience It paves the way for the development of new and more effective treatment strategies for neurodevelopmental diseases, such as schizophrenia or autism, in which social functions are impaired.

Emotions are under the control of two separate regions of the brain

Recognizing emotions expressed by others and responding appropriately is an essential skill for animals because it increases their ability to interact effectively with their peers, thus increasing their likelihood of survival. The brain mechanisms behind this process remain largely unknown, even in humans.

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Using cutting-edge techniques, Dr. Francesco Papaleo’s team has discovered a brain circuit involved in social cognitive processes that had not been studied before. It consists of a group of specific neurons that connect two distant regions of the brain: the prefrontal cortex and the retrosplenial cortex.

Neurons captured by fluorescence microscopy/image. IIT

In humans, the function of this association was tested in a trial involving more than 1,000 volunteers. Each participant had to watch a screen displaying faces with angry, happy, or neutral expressions. During the test, the researchers recorded brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to see which areas of the brain were activated. The results confirmed a relationship between the activity of two brain circuit regions – the prefrontal cortex and the retrosplenial cortex – and emotion recognition.

Dr. Francesco Papaleo explains:

We are excited about these new findings because they advance our understanding of the brain circuits that encode, and thus make us responsive to, the emotions of others. We would like to have a broader view of how these mechanisms work, especially how they change in psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Current medications used to treat neurodevelopmental disorders are not selective; they affect many types of neurons at random. It seems possible to develop therapeutic strategies that target specific brain circuits to reduce side effects while increasing treatment effectiveness.

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