Differences between chimpanzees and bonobos in neural systems supporting social cognition


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Abstract

Our two closest living primate relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus), exhibit significant behavioral differences despite belonging to the same genus and sharing a very recent common ancestor. Differences have been reported in multiple aspects of social behavior, including aggression, sex, play and cooperation. However, the neurobiological basis of these differences has only been minimally investigated and remains uncertain. Here, we present the first ever comparison of chimpanzee and bonobo brains using diffusion tensor imaging, supplemented with a voxel-wise analysis of T1-weighted images to specifically compare neural circuitry implicated in social cognition. We find that bonobos have more gray matter in brain regions involved in perceiving distress in both oneself and others, including the right dorsal amygdala and right anterior insula. Bonobos also have a larger pathway linking the amygdala with the ventral anterior cingulate cortex, a pathway implicated in both top–down control of aggressive impulses as well as bottom–up biases against harming others. We suggest that this neural system not only supports increased empathic sensitivity in bonobos, but also behaviors like sex and play that serve to dissipate tension, thereby limiting distress and anxiety to levels conducive with prosocial behavior.

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