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Study shows neurobiological effects of providing support to others.

Both younger and older participants in the Intergenerational Care Project have expressed excitement and joy at being able to interact with each other. Griffith University

Connie Hughes, Wolters Kluwer, EurekAlert! August 30, 2018

Providing "targeted" social support to other people in need activates regions of the brain involved in parental care may help researchers understand the positive health effects of social ties, according to a study [1] in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. The journal is published in the Lippincott Portfolio by Wolters Kluwer.

By comparison, providing "untargeted" support such as giving to charity does not have the same neurobiological effects, according to the new research by Tristen K. Inagaki PhD, and Lauren P. Ross BA, of University of Pittsburgh. "Our results highlight the unique benefits of giving targeted support and elucidate neural pathways by which giving support may lead to health," the researchers write.

The researchers performed a pair of experiments to evaluate brain responses to providing different kinds of social support. In the first study, 45 volunteers performed a "giving support" task where they had a chance to win rewards for someone close to them who needed money (targeted support), for charity (untargeted support), or for themselves. As predicted, participants felt more socially connected, and felt that their support was more effective, when giving targeted social support.

The subjects then underwent an emotional ratings task including functional MRI scanning to assess activation of specific brain areas when giving social support. Providing support, regardless of who received the support, was linked to increased activation of the ventral striatum (VS) and septal area (SA) - regions previously linked to parental care behaviors in animals. However, only higher activation of the SA when people gave targeted support was associated with lower activity in a brain structure called the amygdala - sometimes linked to fear and stress responses.

In the second study, 382 participants provided information on their behavior in giving support (prosocial behavior) and underwent a different emotional ratings task with functional MRI scanning. Once again, those who reported giving more targeted support to others also showed reduced activity in the amygdala. In both studies, giving untargeted support (such as giving to charity) was unrelated to amygdala activity.

"Humans thrive off social connections and benefit when they act in the service of others' well-being," according to the authors. A previous study [2] by Dr. Inagaki, also published  in Psychosomatic Medicine, found that giving social support has positive effects on brain areas involved in stress and reward responses. That study suggested that providing support - not just receiving it - may be an important contributor to the physical and mental health benefits of social support.

The new study adds further evidence that giving targeted support may be uniquely beneficial. Both targeted and untargeted support are linked to increased SA activity, supporting the "warm glow" theory of providing support: we help others, directly or indirectly, simply because it "feels good."

But the link between increased SA activation and decreased amygdala activity "suggests a neural pathway by which giving support ultimately influence health that is specific to targeted forms of support-giving, such as giving to specific people we know are in need," Dr. Inagaki and Ms. Ross write.

The authors note that their study cannot show a cause-and-effect of providing support on activation of the SA or amygdala. They also point out that providing targeted social support does not always lead to improved health - for example, prolonged caregiving for an ill family member can be detrimental to health.

The study adds to previous evidence that providing social support to others "may be an overlooked contributor to the well-known link between social ties and health," Dr. Inagaki and Ms. Ross write. They conclude: "Giving targeted support to an identifiable individual in need is uniquely associated with reduced amygdala activity thereby contributing to understanding of how and when giving support may lead to health."

Source EurekAlert! AAAS

  1. Neural Correlates of Giving Social Support: Differences between Giving Targeted versus Untargeted Support, Inagaki, Tristen K PhD; Ross, Lauren PBA. Psychosomatic Medicine July 25, 2018. Published Ahead of Print doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000623
  2. The Neurobiology of Giving Versus Receiving Support: The Role of Stress-Related and Social Reward-Related Neural Activity, Inagaki TK, Bryne Haltom KE, Suzuki S, Jevtic I, Hornstein E, Bower JE, Eisenberger NI. Psychosom Med. 2016 May;78(4):443-53. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000302. Full text
  3. Giving support to others reduces sympathetic nervous system-related responses to stress, Inagaki TK, Eisenberger NI. (2016). Psychophysiology 2016 Apr;53(4):427-35. doi: 10.1111/psyp.12578. Epub 2015 Nov 17. PDF
  4. The psychological costs of social support imbalance: Variation across relationship context and age, Wang D, Gruenewald T. J Health Psychol. 2017 Feb 1:1359105317692854. doi: 10.1177/1359105317692854. [Epub ahead of print] Full text
  5. Extraordinary Altruists Exhibit Enhanced Self-Other Overlap in Neural Responses to Distress, Brethel-Haurwitz KM, Cardinale EM, Vekaria KM, Robertson EL, Walitt B, VanMeter JW, Marsh AA. Psychol Sci. 2018 Aug 21:956797618779590. doi: 10.1177/0956797618779590. [Epub ahead of print] Full text
  Further reading

The neurodevelopmental precursors of altruistic behavior in infancy, Tobias Grossmann, Manuela Missana, Kathleen M. Krol. Published: September 25, 2018. PLOS Biology. Full text

Also see
Exercise, Eat Well, Help Others: Altruism's Surprisingly Strong Health Impact Scientific American
For the first time, a neural link between altruism and empathy toward strangers University of Pennsylvania
Giving Support to Others—Not Just Receiving It—Has Beneficial Effects Wolters Kluwer
Better to Give than to Receive? With Social Support, Balancing Both is Key USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology
A new project shows combining childcare and aged care has social and economic benefits The Conversation
Survey casts doubt on whether giving really is better than receiving The Irish Times
Why these university students love living with seniors CBC News
'They give us life!': Seniors get boost from weekly play dates CBC News Ottawa
Symbiosis: Grad Students and Seniors Co-Housing Program McMaster University
Sensitive babies become altruistic toddlers Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

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