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Thank brain for gratitude

Neuroimaging research demonstrates how the brain translates altruism into feelings of thankfulness

Society for Neuroscience

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IMAGE: Experiment procedure and behavioral results.

(A) At the beginning of each trial, the participants were (ostensibly) paired with one of three co-players. Then the participants saw a pain-money pair and waited... view more 

Credit: Yu et al., JNeurosci (2018)

A brain network that gives rise to feelings of gratitude has been uncovered in new research published in JNeurosci. The study could spur future investigations into how these "building blocks" transform social information into complex emotions.

Previous neuroimaging research in which participants imagined themselves as survivors of the Holocaust who received food, shelter and clothing from strangers identified the medial prefrontal cortex and perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pgACC) as brain regions associated with gratefulness. However, it remains unclear how these parts of the brain translate such altruism into gratitude.

Xiaolin Zhou and colleagues addressed this question by having participants play a social interactive game in which their partner would decide whether to pay different sums of money to in order to prevent the participant from receiving a pain stimulation. By manipulating the pain intensity and cost to the partner to help the participant, the researchers found that partner cost activated brain regions involved in mentalizing while levels of pain reduction were encoded in regions involved in reward representation. Connectivity analyses revealed that these regions feed information to pgACC, which tracked feelings of gratitude over time. Their findings indicate that gratitude may arise from the integration of relevant social information in pgACC.

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Article: Decomposing gratitude: representation and integration of cognitive antecedents of gratitude in the brain
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2944-17.2018
Corresponding author: Xiaolin Zhou (Peking University, Beijing, China), xz104@pku.edu.cn

About JNeurosci

JNeurosci, the Society for Neuroscience's first journal, was launched in 1981 as a means to communicate the findings of the highest quality neuroscience research to the growing field. Today, the journal remains committed to publishing cutting-edge neuroscience that will have an immediate and lasting scientific impact, while responding to authors' changing publishing needs, representing breadth of the field and diversity in authorship.

About The Society for Neuroscience

The Society for Neuroscience is the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1969, now has nearly 37,000 members in more than 90 countries and over 130 chapters worldwide.

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