Neuroscience and Curious Little Monkeys

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Mar. 1, 2013

Neuroscience and Curious Little Monkeys

Kim Phillips, a behavioral neuroscientist, uses non-invasive imaging technology to study the brains of capuchins – including research on the area of the brain responsible for curiosity

a capuchin monkey uses a tool to get a treat
A capuchin monkey uses a simple tool to get a treat.  Associate professor Kim Phillips uses MRI technology to
understand how the corpus callosum area of the primate's brain is invlolved in skilled bimanual hand movements.

San Antonio - A capuchin monkey spies a brightly colored object on the side of its cage that wasn't there before.  The object is square-shaped and seemingly out of place in the monkey's environment.  But within seconds, the monkey swings up to the new gadget and begins to touch it with quick, deft movements and sniffs at it to figure out what it might be.

The object is a children's activity center and it was put there to see if, and how, the monkey would interact with it.  It was part of an experiment by Kim Phillips, associate professor of psychology and a behavioral neuroscientist at Trinity University, to determine where curiosity might reside in the brain.

Associate Professor of Psychology Kim PhillipsPhillips has spent most of her career researching the neural workings of monkeys, particularly capuchins, and chimpanzees. 

She started with field work studying foraging skills of primates. As she came to recognize what the capuchins were capable of accomplishing in terms of skill, speed, and strategy, she became interested in learning the neurophysiology behind their actions.

About a dozen years ago, she began using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as a non-invasive way to measure and map the brains of monkeys for keys to their behavior.

In the study involving curious little monkeys, Phillips and her students tested several capuchins and found that while some went to the children's toy right away to investigate, other capuchins, apparently anxious, stayed away. Phillips and the students analyzed their findings and used MRI scanning to see if there were any differences in the brains of curious and not so curious monkeys.  

"What we found out was pretty exciting. The area of the brain where curious monkeys had a greater grey matter density- a greater grey matter volume - was called the precuneus, a structure very few know about," she said.

In humans, the precuneus appears to be linked to self-awareness and self-monitoring. It also has connections to other areas in the cortex. "So it seems to be a really important structure for accessing self-referential memory, the part that asks 'what do I know?' and 'what is this?'"

The new information, combined with what is known about the precuneus, has led to uncharted research territory and currently one of Phillips' students is working on an extension of the study.

The curiosity experiment was just one study Phillips has conducted using MRI technology.  This year, she is completing research funded by the National Institutes of Health looking at the organization of the corpus callosum in capuchins and chimpanzees.  The corpus callosum is the major white matter that connects the two cerebral hemispheres and is involved in skilled bimanual acts of the hands. Along with MRI scans, Phillips used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to map out pathways in the brain.

Neuroscience Major

Phillips is co-chair, with James Roberts, the Cowles Distinguished Professor of Biology, of Trinity's neuroscience major. "We attract eager, motivated, and bright students," she said, adding that many go on to medical school or graduate school once they graduate from Trinity.

Phillips says Trinity's program is unique in that it has courses in many of the different specialties of neuroscience. "We have classes in behavioral neuroscience, molecular and cellular neuroscience, neurochemistry, and biophysics so a student can get exposed to many of the subfields within neuroscience that they may not typically get at another institution," she explained.

Every fall, Phillips and Roberts take their students to the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, the largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system, with chapters in more than 90 countries.

At the meeting, Trinity students give poster presentations and later have dinner with alumni who are now in graduate school.  "We have really built up that community," said Phillips.

She adds that the alumni also let them know that the neuroscience major prepared them well for graduate school. "They say they feel very confident in their programs."

Courses Taught

  • Introduction to Neuroscience
  • Neuroscience Laboratory
  • Supervised Research

Selected Publications

  • Phillips, K.A., Subiaul, F., & Sherwood, C.C. "Curious monkeys have greater grey matter density in the precuneus," Neuroscience Letters, 518, 172-175. (2012)
  • Phillips, K.A., Buzzell, C.A., *Holder, N., & Sherwood, C.C. "Why do capuchin monkeys urine wash?  An experimental test of the sexual communication hypothesis using fMRI,"  American Journal of Primatology, 73, 578-584. (2011)
  • Phillips, K.A. & Hopkins, W.D., "Topography of the chimpanzee corpus callosum," PLoS ONE, 7, e31941. (2012)

(* denotes an undergraduate student co-author)

 - Russell Guerrero '83