Brain's insular cortex mediates approach and avoidance responses to others in distress

January 31, 2018, Boston College
Experiments with adult and juvenile rats, pictured here, confirmed the insular cortex, an information-processing region of the brain in humans as well, is central to reactions like approach or avoidance of others, a team of Boston College neuroscience researchers has found. Credit: John P. Christianson, Boston College

The brain's insular cortex, which processes senses and emotions, controls reactions like approach to or avoidance of others through the action of the hormone oxytocin, a team of Boston College researchers reports in the latest edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Searching for clues to complex human social behaviors, the team developed a procedure in which laboratory rats - much like humans - prefer to approach distressed juveniles but avoid distressed adults - responses known as social affective behaviors, according to the article titled "Insular mediates approach and avoidance responses to others in distress."

The experiments demonstrate how the brain's region is required for proper reactions to others in distress. Further, the release of oxytocin results in changes in insular cortex excitability and likely accounts for the social affective behaviors, according to the team, led by Boston College Gianinno Family Sesquicentennial Assistant Professor of Psychology John P. Christianson.

The team's experiments provide a new model to investigate brain function during emotion recognition and empathy tasks. The model expands the research toolkit for investigations of social behaviors and psychiatric diseases like autism and schizophrenia. The findings point specifically to the insular cortex and oxytocin reception as key to social responses.

The overarching goal of the research initiative is to uncover the neural circuitry that allows animals to recognize the emotional states of other animals and generate appropriate reactions, Christianson said.

"We were surprised that insular cortex activity was correlated with both social approach and social avoidance behaviors," said Christianson. "This suggests that the insular cortex works together with a distributed network to integrate features like the age and stress of other individuals." 

Understanding the wiring of the social brain is relevant to many social settings, Christianson said. As an example, he said, when an individual encounters someone else in distress, there are a number of possible reactions - to help the other, to flee, to seek help or warn others of potential danger.

"What an individual chooses to do in such a situation depends on a number of factors including the relationship between interactants, their ages, safety in the environment, and intrinsic empathic capacities," said Christianson. "The social cognition underlying these decisions is critical for cooperation, trust, helping and intimacy."

Christianson said his team uses neuroscience techniques "to investigate the biological basis for social cognition with the hope that we can better understand and treat people with conditions marked by aberrant social cognition such as autism or schizophrenia."

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Mental Health and the Brain and Behavior Foundation. In addition to Christianson, the article was co-authored by BC Assistant Professor of Psychology Maureen Ritchey, doctoral student and NSF Graduate Research Fellow Morgan M. Rogers-Carter, Research Associate Juan A. Varela, and undergraduate students Katherine B. Gribbons, Anne F. Pierce, and Morgan T. McGoey.

Christianson said the findings set the stage for a large-scale investigation of the brain circuits that work together to orchestrate responses to social emotional information with the hope that such research will lead to better treatment for people with conditions marked by aberrant social cognition, such as autism or schizophrenia.

Specifically, the Christianson lab will investigate brain regions that receive input from the insular cortex to determine whether these pathways are necessary for interactions with stressed individuals. 

Explore further: Social phobia linked to autism and schizophrenia

More information: Morgan M. Rogers-Carter et al, Insular cortex mediates approach and avoidance responses to social affective stimuli, Nature Neuroscience (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41593-018-0071-y

Related Stories

Social phobia linked to autism and schizophrenia

December 11, 2017
New Swinburne research shows that people who find social situations difficult tend to have similar brain responses to those with schizophrenia or autism.

Salience network is linked to brain disorders

December 5, 2014
How does the brain determine what matters? According to a new scientific article, a brain structure called the insula is essential for selecting things out of the environment that are "salient" for an individual, and dysfunction ...

Autism therapy: Brain stimulation restores social behavior in mice

December 13, 2017
Scientists are examining the feasibility of treating autistic children with neuromodulation after a new study showed social impairments can be corrected by brain stimulation.

'Disgusted' rats teaching scientists about nausea, work may lead to new cancer treatments

October 5, 2012
Nausea is a common and distressing side effect of many drugs and treatments. Unlike vomiting, nausea is not well understood, but new research by University of Guelph scientists may soon change that.

Study identifies brain circuit controlling social behavior

January 11, 2018
A new study by researchers at Roche in Basel, Switzerland has identified a key brain region of the neural circuit that controls social behavior. Increasing the activity of this region, called the habenula, led to social problems ...

Oxytocin turns up the volume of your social environment

September 20, 2017
Before you shop for the "cuddle" hormone oxytocin to relieve stress and enhance your social life, read this: a new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that sometimes, blocking the action of oxytocin in ...

Recommended for you

Do you see what I see? Researchers harness brain waves to reconstruct images of what we perceive

February 22, 2018
A new technique developed by neuroscientists at the University of Toronto Scarborough can, for the first time, reconstruct images of what people perceive based on their brain activity gathered by EEG.

Neuroscientists discover a brain signal that indicates whether speech has been understood

February 22, 2018
Neuroscientists from Trinity College Dublin and the University of Rochester have identified a specific brain signal associated with the conversion of speech into understanding. The signal is present when the listener has ...

Study in mice suggests personalized stem cell treatment may offer relief for multiple sclerosis

February 22, 2018
Scientists have shown in mice that skin cells re-programmed into brain stem cells, transplanted into the central nervous system, help reduce inflammation and may be able to help repair damage caused by multiple sclerosis ...

Superagers' youthful brains offer clues to keeping sharp

February 22, 2018
It's pretty extraordinary for people in their 80s and 90s to keep the same sharp memory as someone several decades younger, and now scientists are peeking into the brains of these "superagers" to uncover their secret.

A look at the space between mouse brain cells

February 22, 2018
Between the brain's neurons and glial cells is a critical but understudied structure that's been called neuroscience's final frontier: the extracellular space. With a new imaging paradigm, scientists can now see into and ...

Nolan film 'Memento' reveals how the brain remembers and interprets events from clues

February 22, 2018
Key repeating moments in the film give viewers the information they need to understand the storyline. The scenes cause identical reactions in the viewer's brain. The results deepen our understanding of how the brain functions, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.