'Unselfish' Neurons in the Brain?

Scientists find brain scan evidence that altruism is 'biologically imbedded'

THURSDAY, July 18, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Not only does charity begin at home. It also may begin in your brain, even if you don't actually think about it.

Scientists at Emory Unversity in Atlanta say they've used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to reveal a biological basis for human cooperation. In other words, we sometimes act in an unselfish manner because there are several regions of the brain that become activated when cooperation and sacrifice are called for.

The researchers used a game called "Prisoner's Dilemma" to confirm their hypothesis. The players had to decide when to trust each other, rather than act as betrayers to reach certain goals. The results of the study appear in the latest issue of Neuron.

Scientists have been trying to understand why humans sometimes act in a cooperative manner, even if there's no immediate gain for them.

According to a news release from the university, the MRI scan was the first time people's brains were studied in an interactive environment.

"This study represents an attempt to learn about the social brain by scanning people as they are engaged in a true social interaction," lead investigator James Rilling says in the statement.

Nineteen subjects were scanned in four game sessions designed to observe neural function during cooperation and non-cooperation in the course of both human interactions (social) and interactions with a computer (non-social). The results of the first experiment revealed different patterns of neural activation, depending on whether the playing partner was identified as a human or a computer. In the second experiment, 17 subjects were scanned during three game sessions, focusing specifically on human interaction.

"Mutual cooperation was the most common outcome in games played with presumed human partners in both experiments, even though a player was maximally rewarded for defecting when the other player cooperated," the study concludes. Specific areas of the brain showed pattern changes as a result of the game, the researchers say.

More information

We probably know more about how our kidneys or lungs work than how our brains function. This page from California State University at Chico gives some solid information on how the brain works.

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