New insight into the role of the “social brain”

Research led by Professor Jack van Honk from the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health and the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, together with collaborators from the Netherlands and a range of other countries, has brought new insight into the role of the amygdala or “social brain” through investigating a rare genetic developmental disorder that is found in South Africa.

Urbach-Wiethe Disease (UWD) has been reported in a community in the Namaqualand region, where 40% of the world’s approximately 100 reported cases of the condition are found. Studying five female patients, Professor von Honk examined lesions of the basolateral amygdala characteristic of the disease to reveal that it made the patients hypervigilant for fearful expressions.

The findings have important implications for the understanding of the basolateral amygdala’s role in an array of social behaviours, and especially its role in fear and anxiety disorders. Furthermore, they highlight the value of brain-imaging capabilities and the importance of UCT’s geographic location.

“Cultural neuroscience holds promise for South Africa, given the genuine cultural diversity of the population and the modern neuroimaging infrastructure in Cape Town,” says Professor von Honk, an NRF A-rated scholar, who published his work on UWD in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America), one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, last year.

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