9 Abstracts from 2004-2006

Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H. F., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early- stage intense romantic love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 94(1), 327-337.

Early-stage romantic love can induce euphoria, is a cross- cultural phenomenon, and is possibly a developed form of a mammalian drive to pursue preferred mates. It has an important influence on social behaviors that have reproductive and genetic consequences. To determine which reward and motivation systems may be involved, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging and studied 10 women and 7 men who were intensely "in love" from 1 to 17 mo. Participants alternately viewed a photograph of their beloved and a photograph of a familiar individual, interspersed with a distraction-attention task. Group activation specific to the beloved under the two control conditions occurred in dopamine-rich areas associated with mammalian reward and motivation, namely the right ventral tegmental area and the right postero-dorsal body and medial caudate nucleus. Activation in the left ventral tegmental area was correlated with facial attractiveness scores. Activation in the right anteromedial caudate was correlated with questionnaire scores that quantified intensity of romantic passion. In the left insula-putamen-globus pallidus, activation correlated with trait affect intensity. The results suggest that romantic love uses subcortical reward and motivation systems to focus on a specific individual, that limbic cortical regions process individual emotion factors, and that there is localization heterogeneity for reward functions in the human brain.

Avenanti, A., Bueti, D., Galati, G., & Aglioti, S. M. (2005). Transcranial magnetic stimulation highlights the sensorimotor side of empathy for pain. Nature Neuroscience, 8(7), 955-960.

Pain is intimately linked with action systems that are involved in observational learning and imitation. Motor responses to one's own pain allow freezing or escape reactions and ultimately survival. Here we show that similar motor responses occur as a result of observation of painful events in others. We used transcranial magnetic stimulation to record changes in corticospinal motor representations of hand muscles of individuals observing needles penetrating hands or feet of a human model or noncorporeal objects. We found a reduction in amplitude of motor-evoked potentials that was specific to the muscle that subjects observed being pricked. This inhibition correlated with the observer's subjective rating of the sensory qualities of the pain attributed to the model and with sensory, but not emotional, state or trait empathy measures. The empathic inference about the sensory qualities of others' pain and their automatic embodiment in the observer's motor system may be crucial for the social learning of reactions to pain.

Bartels, A., & Zeki, S. (2004). The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love. Neuroimage, 21(3), 1155-1166.

Romantic and maternal love are highly rewarding experiences. Both are linked to the perpetuation of the species and therefore have a closely linked biological function of crucial evolutionary importance. Yet almost nothing is known about their neural correlates in the human. We therefore used fMRI to measure brain activity in mothers while they viewed pictures of their own and of acquainted children, and of their best friend and of acquainted adults as additional controls. The activity specific to maternal attachment was compared to that associated to romantic love described in our earlier study and to the distribution of attachment-mediating neurohormones established by other studies. Both types of attachment activated regions specific to each, as well as overlapping regions in the brain's reward system that coincide with areas rich in oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. Both deactivated a common set of regions associated with negative emotions, social judgment and 'mentalizing', that is, the assessment of other people's intentions and emotions. We conclude that human attachment employs a push-pull mechanism that overcomes social distance by deactivating networks used for critical social assessment and negative emotions, while it bonds individuals through the involvement of the reward circuitry, explaining the power of love to motivate and exhilarate. (C) 2004 Elsevier Inc..

Berns, G. S., Chappelow, J., Zink, C. F., Pagnoni, G., Martin-Skurski, M. E., & Richards, J. (2005). Neurobiological correlates of social conformity and independence during mental rotation. Biological Psychiatry, 58(3), 245-253.

Background: When individual judgment conflicts with a group, the individual will often conform his judgment to that of the group. Conformity might arise at an executive level of decision making, or it might arise because the social setting alters the individual's perception of the world. Methods: We used functional magnetic resonance imaging and a task of mental rotation in the context of peer pressure to investigate the neural basis of individualistic and conforming behavior in the face of wrong information. Results: Conformity was associated with functional changes in an occipital-parietal network, especially when the wrong information originated from other people. Independence was associated with increased amygdala and caudate activity, findings consistent with the assumptions of social norm theory about the behavioral saliency of standing alone. Conclusions: These findings provide the first biological evidence for the involvement of perceptual and emotional processes during social conformity.

Grill-Spector, K., Knouf, N., & Kanwisher, N. (2004). The fusiform face area subserves face perception, not generic within-category identification. Nature Neuroscience, 7(5), 555-562.

The function of the fusiform face area (FFA), a face-selective region in human extrastriate cortex, is a matter of active debate. Here we measured the correlation between FFA activity measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and behavioral outcomes in perceptual tasks to determine the role of the FFA in the detection and within-category identification of faces and objects. Our data show that FFA activation is correlated on a trial-by-trial basis with both detecting the presence of faces and identifying specific faces. However, for most non-face objects (including cars seen by car experts), within-category identification performance was correlated with activation in other regions of the ventral occipitotemporal cortex, not the FFA. These results indicate that the FFA is involved in both detection and identification of faces, but that it has little involvement in within-category identification of non-face objects (including objects of expertise).

Noppeney, U., Price, C. J., Penny, W. D., & Friston, K. J. (2006). Two distinct neural mechanisms for category-selective responses. Cerebral Cortex, 16(3), 437-445.

The cognitive and neural mechanisms mediating category-selective responses in the human brain remain controversial. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging and effective connectivity analyses (Dynamic Causal Modelling), we investigated animal- and tool-selective responses by manipulating stimulus modality (pictures versus words) and task (implicit versus explicit semantic). We dissociated two distinct mechanisms that engender category selectivity: in the ventral occipito-temporal cortex, tool-selective responses were observed irrespective of task, greater for pictures and mediated by bottom-up effects. In a left temporo-parietal action system, tool-selective responses were observed irrespective of modality, greater for explicit semantic tasks and mediated by top-down modulation from the left prefrontal cortex. These distinct activation and connectivity patterns suggest that the two systems support different cognitive operations, with the ventral occipito-temporal regions engaged in structural processing and the dorsal visuo-motor system in strategic semantic processing. Consistent with current semantic theories, explicit semantic processing of tools might thus rely on reactivating their associated action representations via top-down modulation. In terms of neuronal mechanisms, the category selectivity may be mediated by distinct top-down (task-dependent) and bottom-up (stimulus-dependent) mechanisms.

Pascual-Leone, A., Amedi, A., Fregni, F., & Merabet, L. B. (2005). The plastic human brain cortex. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 28, 377-401.

Plasticity is an intrinsic property of the human brain and represents evolution's invention to enable the nervous system to escape the restrictions of its own genome and thus adapt to environmental pressures, physiologic changes, and experiences. Dynamic shifts in the strength of preexisting connections across distributed neural networks, changes in task-related cortico-cortical and cortico-subcortical coherence and modifications of the mapping between behavior and neural activity take place in response to changes in afferent input or efferent demand. Such rapid, ongoing changes may be followed by the establishment of new connections through dendritic growth and arborization. However, they harbor the danger that the evolving pattern of neural activation may in itself lead to abnormal behavior. Plasticity is the mechanism for development and learning, as much as a cause of pathology. The challenge we face is to learn enough about the mechanisms of plasticity to modulate them to achieve the best behavioral outcome for a given subject.

Singer, T., Seymour, B., O'Doherty, J. P., Stephan, K. E., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others. Nature, 439(7075), 466-469.

The neural processes underlying empathy are a subject of intense interest within the social neurosciences(1-3). However, very little is known about how brain empathic responses are modulated by the affective link between individuals. We show here that empathic responses are modulated by learned preferences, a result consistent with economic models of social preferences(4-7). We engaged male and female volunteers in an economic game, in which two confederates played fairly or unfairly, and then measured brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging while these same volunteers observed the confederates receiving pain. Both sexes exhibited empathy-related activation in pain-related brain areas (fronto-insular and anterior cingulate cortices) towards fair players. However, these empathy-related responses were significantly reduced in males when observing an unfair person receiving pain. This effect was accompanied by increased activation in reward-related areas, correlated with an expressed desire for revenge. We conclude that in men ( at least) empathic responses are shaped by valuation of other people's social behaviour, such that they empathize with fair opponents while favouring the physical punishment of unfair opponents, a finding that echoes recent evidence for altruistic punishment.

Wieloch, T., & Nikolich, K. (2006). Mechanisms of neural plasticity following brain injury. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 16(3), 258-264.

Brain insults cause rapid cell death, and a disruption of functional circuits, in the affected regions. As the injured tissue recovers from events associated with cell death, regenerative processes are activated that over months lead to a certain degree of functional recovery. Factors produced by new neurons and glia, axonal sprouting of surviving neurons, and new synapse formation help to re-establish some of the lost functions. The timing and location of such events is crucial in the success of the regenerative process. Comprehensive gene expression profiling and proteomic analyses have enabled a deeper molecular and cellular mechanistic understanding of post-injury brain regeneration. These new mechanistic insights are aiding the design of novel therapeutic modalities that enhance regeneration.