The Neural Circuitry Underlying Altruistic Behavior

Principal Investigator: Stephanie Brown, Social Psychology, SUNY Stonybrook and University of Michigan

Co-Principal Investigator: James E. Swain, Department of Psychiatry, University of Michigan and Yale Child Study Center

Co-Investigators: S. Shaun Ho and Israel Liberzon, Psychiatry, University of Michigan and Sara Konrath, Psychology and Institute for Social Research University of Michigan

Studies have shown that altruistic behavior directed toward relationship partners has psychological and health benefits for the helper. Attempts to understand these benefits suggest that altruistic behavior can engage a suite of cognitions, emotions and neurophysiological circuitry that amount to a caregiving behavioral system that motivates parental and other forms of caretaking behavior.

The evidence to support the idea of a neurobiological system oriented toward caregiving comes from functional neuroanatomical studies of maternal caregiving in social mammals. These studies have identified specific neural circuitry that is recruited to direct maternal behavior in rats and other rodents; they indicate that maternal behavior is regulated within the hypothalamus, which turns on maternal motivation and influences sensory-motor integration to facilitate maternal responsiveness, including inhibiting competing avoidance and fear motivations. Despite this work there have been no human neuroimaging studies that have explicitly tested whether or not human altruism activates brain circuits that support maternal care.

This project addresses this gap in the literature by conducting a neuroimaging study with parents and non-parents that aims to identify the neural circuitry underlying human altruism. Researchers on the project will scan 20 female parents and 20 female age-matched non-parents as they view infant videos and then work on tasks to help themselves (control tasks) or tasks involving helping a partner (helping tasks) who is either a stranger or someone to whom they have become close. Next, all participants will be exposed to a stress induction in the scanner and researchers will measure cardiovascular and hormonal indicators of stress and administer sell-report questionnaires to track changes in positive mood and motivational state.

The aim of this research is to determine three things:

  • whether human altruism and human parenting responses activate similar networks of brain regions
  • whether activation of these networks is associated with beneficial health in the helper (e.g., accelerated stress recovery), and
  • whether or not activation of these networks differs as a function of the relationship between the helper and recipient and/or, the helper’s prior maternal experience (parents versus non-parents), and the helper’s level of dispositional empathy.

Ultimately work on this project might elucidate brain mechanisms underlying social influences on health, and thus could lead to the design of a new generation of interventions that leverage the benefits of “caregiving” systems. Neuroimaging studies will be useful to determine malleable factors that activate and inhibit caregiving neurocircuitry. If Brown’s team of researhers can discover a neural signature for human caregiving, the potential impact of this work may extend well beyond health-related initiatives to include social, economic and environmental problems that depend on achieving a better understanding of how to foster cooperation and concern for the wellbeing of others.