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Neuroscientist from Göttingen receives prestigious research grant

Ayuno Nakahashi will study social interactions in rhesus monkeys for three years
Dr. Ayuno Nakahashi has been a postdoctoral researcher in the Sensorimotor Group of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the German Primate Center since August 2023. Photo: Karin Tilch
Ein Rhesusaffe an einem Futterautomat im neu eingerichteten Exploration Room am Deutschen Primatenzentrum. Foto: DPZ/ Videoteam SUB Göttingen
A rhesus monkey at a feeder in the newly established Exploration Room at the German Primate Center. Photo: DPZ/ Videoteam SUB Göttingen

Neuroscientist Ayuno Nakahashi has been awarded a three-year fellowship from the Human Frontier Science Program, making her one of only 11 percent of successful candidates for this highly prestigious international award. At the German Primate Center - Leibniz Institute for Primate Research, she will study social interactions and decision-making in rhesus monkeys, the basis for understanding neurological conditions such as those that occur in autism.

Social interactions are a fundamental part of our daily lives. We need to understand the intentions, beliefs and actions of our counterparts if we are to succeed in our daily lives. If we fail to interpret social cues, this can cause lasting social stress. However, how our brain processes interactions, reads signals and makes decisions is far from fully understood. This is where Ayuno Nakahashi's project comes in. In a novel experimental environment in which the monkeys can move freely, she will observe how the animals interact when foraging together and simultaneously record the activity of nerve cells in the brain during action planning and execution.

"The Göttingen Campus is an ideal place for this project," says Nakahashi. The German Primate Center has recently set up a unique laboratory, the Exploration Room, where two partner animals can roam freely at the same time and explore a variety of different experimental devices. "Although the animals are not restricted, we have full experimental control, can record brain activity wirelessly and use AI-based action recognition tools," says Nakahashi. Later in the project, the neuroscientist will collaborate with computer scientists from the Campus Institute Data Science at the University of Göttingen. "The close and established collaborations between different disciplines, including behavioral biologists, psychologists, and computational neuroscientists, will be a huge advantage," says Nakahashi.

With this project, Ayuno Nakahashi is joining a new direction in neuroscience that breaks away from conventional research methods. Traditionally, animals were tested individually when, after several months of training, they had become accustomed to being placed in a fixed experimental setting New techniques that can wirelessly record the activity of nerve cells in the brain now make it possible to analyze much more naturalistic scenarios, such as the interaction of two animals foraging for food. "This is something very new and particularly exciting," says Nakahashi.

"Because rhesus monkeys are very close to humans in evolutionary terms, I hope that my findings will ultimately help to better understand neurodiversity such as autism spectrum disorder." People with autism spectrum disorder find it difficult to interpret social cues, which can cause frequent misunderstandings and considerable stress.

The Human Frontier Science Program
The Human Frontier Science Program funds interdisciplinary projects in the life sciences. The focus is on research that challenges existing paradigms and uses new approaches and techniques. The grant is highly prestigious and competitive, with only eleven percent of applicants receiving funding this year.