Social Pain and social gain in the adolescent brain: A common neural circuitry

Social Pain and social gain in the adolescent brain: A common neural circuitry

Previous research has shown that negative social feedback activates regions of the brain associated with processing of physical pain, giving rise to the idea of a brain circuit that processes social pain. This new study examined whether they process any socially important information, not just negative or painful.

The researchers found for the first time that these two brain regions, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula (Ai) responded to both negative and positive social feedback. They believe the results have implications for our understanding of what happens during times of mental illness and may improve understanding of, and help for, people who may be over or under-reactive to important social signals.

In the study 56 adolescent participants were told they were competing against three other contestants and had to complete a series of tasks in order to win through successive rounds of the game, to eventually win. In reality only one round of the game was played with all participants being voted off at the end of the first round.

Participants created one minute videos in which they talked about themselves and their aspirations, believing their performance was being rated on six social attributes, including social attractiveness, motivation and emotional sensitivity, by a panel of six judges. They were also able to view and rate the videos of the other contestants.

Reactions to the judges’ ‘feedback’ and final decision on who should be voted off were then captured while participants were in an MRI scanner. They were told that the other contestants were in scanners located across the UK, which were electronically linked so they could play the game interactively. In fact, only the participants were being scanned.

In order to provide signals of social inclusion and social exclusion, participants received false feedback from each judge on each social attribute relative to the other contestants and were then asked to rate how the feedback made them feel. Feedback was either socially positive, negative or neutral over the course of the task.

The results show that this brain network is involved in a broader function than previously thought and are more consistent with a framework in which these brain regions function as a ‘neural sociometer’, an evolved mechanism that allows us to gauge social signals that may impact our social status.

The full text can be viewed at http://www.nature.com/articles/srep42010