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June 17, 2002


Yerkes to Open New Lab to Study Cognitive Function in Chimpanzees

The Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University soon will open one of the few laboratories in the world dedicated to studying chimpanzee cognitive function.

The Center is building a 300-square-foot facility equipped with video touch screens for conducting research experiments on cognition and emotion involving individual chimpanzees or interacting pairs. Researchers in adjoining rooms will be able to observe the animals through reinforced glass.

Modeled on a similar laboratory at the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan, the new lab will allow Yerkes to expand its research in the field of comparative cognition and emotion. By studying how chimpanzees perform tasks that test abilities including face recognition, memory, and problem-solving, scientists expect to gain insight into aspects of human cognition — especially how it develops in infancy and childhood and changes with age.

The lab will be headed by Stuart M. Zola, Ph.D., Director of the Yerkes Center, and Lisa Parr, Ph.D., a research associate in the Center's neuroscience division. Dr. Zola specializes in memory and problems of memory related to aging, injury, and degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's. Dr. Parr studies social processing in chimpanzees and is particularly interested in how chimpanzees perceive emotion.

"The opening of this testing facility will allow Yerkes scientists to use the latest technologies to answer some key questions about the similarities and differences between human and chimp cognition and emotion," Dr. Zola said.

The major advantage of the new facility is that it provides a distraction-free environment for chimpanzees performing cognitive tasks. Most of the chimpanzees at Yerkes live in pairs or groups, making cognitive testing in their home cages impractical. The lab also will be used to train chimpanzees to undergo functional imaging, so that scientists can observe brain activity in the animals while they are awake.

The cognitive lab will add a critical element to the Center's already extensive research program in cognitive research with chimpanzees. Among the Yerkes scientists studying different aspects of chimpanzee cognition and emotion are Frans B. M. de Waal, Ph.D., who closely observes interactions such as reciprocative behaviors and conflict resolution in large social groups of chimpanzees; and Bill Hopkins, Ph.D., who employs both behavioral studies of motor function and communication and magnetic resonance imaging to identify key brain systems in the great apes.

Yerkes has a long history of chimpanzee research, dating back to its founding in 1929 by Yale psychobiologist Robert M. Yerkes. The Center has about 180 chimpanzees, most of which were born at Yerkes or elsewhere in captivity. Chimpanzees are used in behavioral and biomedical studies at Yerkes, and are important to research in reproductive biology, immune function, infectious diseases, age-related cognitive decline, and genetics.

One of eight National Primate Research Centers funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Yerkes Center of Emory University is a multidisciplinary research institute recognized as a leader in biomedical and behavioral studies with non-human primates. Yerkes scientists are developing vaccines for AIDS, malaria, and other infectious diseases, and treatments for cocaine addiction, Parkinson's disease, and cardiovascular disease. Other research programs focus on age-related cognitive decline, childhood visual defects, organ transplant rejection, and the social behavior of primates. Many Yerkes scientists are affiliated with the Emory Vaccine Research Center, the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, and the Center for AIDS Research at Emory, and Yerkes research programs encompass collaborations with researchers from medical centers and scientific institutions worldwide. The Center has 3,000 non-human primates and 2,500 rodents housed in facilities on the main Emory campus and at a 117-acre Field Station in Lawrenceville, Ga.

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