The team used sensitive electrodes to detect the activity of individual neurons as the animals weighed different scenarios, such as whether to reward themselves, the other monkey or nobody at all. Three areas of the brain were seen to weigh the problem differently depending on the social context of the reward. The research appears Dec. 24 in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
Using a computer screen to allocate juice rewards, the monkeys preferred to reward themselves first and foremost. But they also chose to reward the other monkey when it was either that or nothing for either of them. They also were more likely to give the reward to a monkey they knew over one they didn't, preferred to give to lower status than higher status monkeys, and had almost no interest in giving the juice to an inanimate object.
Calculating the social aspects of the reward system seems to be a combination of action by two centers involved in calculating all sorts of rewards and a third center that adds the social dimension, according to lead researcher Michael Platt, director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.
The orbital frontal cortex, right above the eyes, was activated when calculating rewards to the self. The anterior cingulate sulcus in the middle of the top of the brain seemed to calculate giving up a reward. But both centers appear "divorced from social context," Platt said. A third area, the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACCg), seemed to "care a lot about what happened to the other monkey," Platt said.