Communication is an inherently interactive process that weaves together the fabric of both human and nonhuman primate societies. To investigate the properties of the primate brain during active social signaling, we recorded the responses of frontal cortex neurons as freely moving marmosets engaged in conversational exchanges with a visually occluded virtual marmoset. We found that small changes in firing rate (∼1 Hz) occurred across a broadly distributed population of frontal cortex neurons when marmosets heard a conspecific vocalization, and that these changes corresponded to subjects' likelihood of producing or withholding a vocal reply. Although the contributions of individual neurons were relatively small, large populations of neurons were able to clearly distinguish between these social contexts. Most significantly, this social context-dependent change in firing rate was evident even before subjects heard the vocalization, indicating that the probability of a conversational exchange was determined by the state of the frontal cortex at the time a vocalization was heard, and not by a decision driven by acoustic characteristics of the vocalization. We found that changes in neural activity scaled with the length of the conversation, with greater changes in firing rate evident for longer conversations. These data reveal specific and important facets of this neural activity that constrain its possible roles in active social signaling, and we hypothesize that the close coupling between frontal cortex activity and this natural, active primate social-signaling behavior facilitates social-monitoring mechanisms critical to conversational exchanges.
Samuel U. Nummela, Vladimir Jovanovic, Lisa de la Mothe, Cory T. Miller "Social Context-Dependent Activity in Marmoset Frontal Cortex Populations during Natural Conversations" Journal of Neuroscience 19 July 2017, 37 (29) 7036-7047; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0702-17.2017