June 3, 2016
Gaze following is a basic building block of social behavior that has been observed in multiple species, including primates. The absence of gaze following is associated with abnormal development of social cognition, such as in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Some social deficits in ASD, including the failure to look at eyes and the inability to recognize facial expressions, are ameliorated by intranasal administration of oxytocin (IN-OT). Here we tested the hypothesis that IN-OT might enhance social processes that require active engagement with a social partner, such as gaze following. Alternatively, IN-OT may only enhance the perceptual salience of the eyes, and may not modify behavioral responses to social signals. To test this hypothesis, we presented four monkeys with videos of conspecifics displaying natural behaviors. Each video was viewed multiple times before and after the monkeys received intranasally either 50 IU of OT or saline. We found that despite a gradual decrease in attention to the repeated viewing of the same videos (habituation), IN-OT consistently increased the frequency of gaze following saccades. Further analysis confirmed that these behaviors did not occur randomly, but rather predictably in response to the same segments of the videos. These findings suggest that in response to more naturalistic social stimuli IN-OT enhances the propensity to interact with a social partner rather than merely elevating the perceptual salience of the eyes. In light of these findings, gaze following may serve as a metric for pro-social effects of oxytocin that target social action more than social perception.