UC Berkeley bat study connects social behavior with neural patterns

photo of the Li Ka Shing center
Paolo Harris Paz/File
Researchers at the NeuroBat Lab studied social interaction and neural activity among Egyptian fruit bats to better understand the neural mechanisms that can promote healthy group social behavior and communication.

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UC Berkeley researchers co-authored a study at the NeuroBat Lab identifying connections between social behavior and specific neural patterns. 

The study used “wireless neurophysiological recordings” and “novel behavioral monitoring techniques” to record the activity of Egyptian fruit bats as they interacted with each other in a natural group environment, according to the study. 

The researchers found two main patterns of neural activity among the bats: one pattern within individual brains and one shared pattern among the brains of all individuals interacting in a group. 

“We did not expect to find such a rich neural repertoire of complex groups of neural signals representing core components of group behavior,” said UC Berkeley assistant professor of bioengineering and neuroscience Michael Yartsev in an email. 

According to the study, within individual brains, single-neuron activity is used to discern between the vocalizations of oneself and those of others in a group. Furthermore, specific neurons fire differently based on the identity of the vocalizing bat.

The study also observed synchronicity in the high frequency local field potential between group members as a result of vocalizations. Local field potential is a measure of the total activity of many neurons acting together in the area around an electrode, which is used as a measuring device. 

The bats’ brain activity also revealed patterns that changed in response to their social preferences, the study noted. Bats that preferred to spend more time in a social setting presented higher levels of interbrain synchrony in the group, while less social bats presented lower levels.

“We were surprised to see how clearly social preferences impacted how individuals were neurally represented in the rest of the group,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Maimon Rose in an email. 

These findings have implications on human social behavior and interaction. According to Yartsev, relatively little is known about the effect of neural mechanisms on the way we socialize and behave in group settings. This is important because the inability to healthily interact and communicate in social groups is a key component to many severe mental health disorders. 

Rose added that understanding how the brain functions in social situations could have implications for the treatment of diseases hindering successful group interactions. 

“Understanding the mammalian neural mechanisms that can support healthy group social behavior and communication is of great relevance to many of us,” Yartsev said in an email. 

A key component of the study involved researchers allowing the bats to interact freely as they would in a natural environment.

Moreover, the Egyptian fruit bat was the “ideal” subject for studying social communication among groups, according to Rose. Egyptian fruit bats are very social creatures that have the ability to maintain social connections and can only communicate when socializing with each other.

The NeuroBat Lab team has many future studies planned, Yartsev noted. The team hopes to gain a better understanding of the neural mechanisms behind the complex behaviors characteristic of bats including navigation, communication and collective behavior.

Contact Dima Aboukasm at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @DimaAboukasm.