Does a specific memory exist for events involving humans? French researchers from the Vulnerability, Adaptation and Psychopathology Laboratory (CNRS/Universitי Paris VI) and Canadian researchers from Douglas Hospital, McGill University (Montreal) have identified the internal part of the prefrontal cortex as the key structure for the memory formation of social information.

Social events like a party with friends, a work meeting or a row with a spouse are an integral part of daily life. Our ability to remember these events, and more particularly to remember the people and the relationship we have with them, is absolutely vital if we are to be well adapted to our social life. Different parts of the brain, particularly the hippocampus, are directly involved in learning and memory. Some of these regions are specialized in learning certain types of information, such as the amygdala, which is specialized in the memory of emotions.

The French team (led by Philippe Fossati ) and Canadian team have just identified a specific region of the frontal cortex which, they claim, is specialized in recording and learning social information. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain activity of 17 volunteers as they performed memory tasks involving pictures of social scenes (people and interactions) and nonsocial scenes (landscapes with no humans). This enabled them to identify the internal part of the prefrontal cortex, called the medial prefrontal cortex, as the key structure for encoding the social information in an image.

Previous studies carried out by the same researchers had associated this prefrontal region to processes of thinking about oneself and others. Their work suggests that, over and above emotions, the analysis of specifically human information could facilitate learning and remembering, by using brain structures specialized in the analysis of mental states and empathy. This opens up important perspectives for understanding the mechanisms of human expressions and mental disorders (e.g. schizophrenic disorders and autism), which affect social and relational skills.