Neurophysiological studies in nonhuman primates have demonstrated that the prefrontal cortex (PFC) plays a critical role in the acquisition of learned categories following training. What is presently unclear is whether this cortical area also plays a role in spontaneous recognition and discrimination of natural categories. Here, we explore this possibility by recording from neurons in the PFC while rhesus listen to species-specific vocalizations that vary in terms of their social function and acoustic morphology. We found that ventral prefrontal cortex (vPFC) activity, on average, did not differentiate between food calls that were associated with the same functional category, despite having different acoustic properties. In contrast, vPFC activity differentiated between food calls associated with different functional classes and specifically, information about the quality and motivational value of the food. These results suggest that the vPFC is involved in the categorization of socially meaningful signals, thereby both extending its previously conceived role in the acquisition of learned categories and showing the significance of using natural categorical distinctions in the study of neural mechanisms.

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