Brain imaging reveals neuronal circuitry underlying the crow's perception of human faces.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Sep 25; 109(39):15912-7.PN
Crows pay close attention to people and can remember specific faces for several years after a single encounter. In mammals, including humans, faces are evaluated by an integrated neural system involving the sensory cortex, limbic system, and striatum. Here we test the hypothesis that birds use a similar system by providing an imaging analysis of an awake, wild animal's brain as it performs an adaptive, complex cognitive task. We show that in vivo imaging of crow brain activity during exposure to familiar human faces previously associated with either capture (threatening) or caretaking (caring) activated several brain regions that allow birds to discriminate, associate, and remember visual stimuli, including the rostral hyperpallium, nidopallium, mesopallium, and lateral striatum. Perception of threatening faces activated circuitry including amygdalar, thalamic, and brainstem regions, known in humans and other vertebrates to be related to emotion, motivation, and conditioned fear learning. In contrast, perception of caring faces activated motivation and striatal regions. In our experiments and in nature, when perceiving a threatening face, crows froze and fixed their gaze (decreased blink rate), which was associated with activation of brain regions known in birds to regulate perception, attention, fear, and escape behavior. These findings indicate that, similar to humans, crows use sophisticated visual sensory systems to recognize faces and modulate behavioral responses by integrating visual information with expectation and emotion. Our approach has wide applicability and potential to improve our understanding of the neural basis for animal behavior.