Posts Tagged ‘ventromedial Prefrontal cortex’

There’s a Deep Neural Connection Between Gratitude, Giving and Values

January 2, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the titled of an article by Christina Karns in the Health & Science Section in the 25 December 2018 issue of the Washington Post.

Psychological research has found that taking time to be thankful has benefits for well-being. Not only does gratitude go along with more optimism, less anxiety and depression, and create goal attainment, but also is associated with fewer symptoms of illness and other physical benefits. Researchers have also found that making connections between the internal experience of gratitude and the external practice of altruism.

The author is a neuroscientist particularly interested in the brain regions and connections that support gratitude and altruism. To study the relationship between gratitude and altruism in the brain, the author and his colleagues first ask volunteers questions meant to test how frequently they feel thankful, and the degree to which they tend to care about the well-being of others. They used statistical analyses to assess the extent to which someone’s gratitude could predict their altruism. As has been previously found, the more grateful people tended to be more altruistic.

Being neuroscientists the next step was to explore about how these tendencies are reflected in the brain. Study participants performed a giving activity in an MRI scanner. They watched as the computer transferred real money to their own account or to the account of a local food bank. Sometimes they could choose whether to give or receive, but other times the transfers were like a mandatory tax, outside their control. They especially wanted to compare what happened in the brain when a participant received money as opposed to seeing money given to the charity instead.

The result was that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very deep, both literally and figuratively. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region deep in the frontal love of the brain, is key to supporting both. This regions is wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a kick of pleasurable neurochemicals in the right circumstances. It does abstract representations of the inner and outer world that help with complex reasoning, one’s representation of oneself and social processing. They also saw how differences in just how active this region was in various individuals.

They calculated a “pure altruism response” by comparing how active the reward regions of the brain were during “charity-gain” vs. “self-gain” situations. The participants identified as more grateful and more altruistic via the questionnaire had higher “pure altruism” scores. That is a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity gaining money. It felt good for them to see the food bank do well.

Other studies have zeroed in on this same brain region and found that individual differences in self-reported “benevolence” were mirrored by participants’ brains’ response to charitable donations, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. So is this brain reward region the key to kindness?

To address this question the author randomly assigned study participants to one of two groups. For three weeks, one group wrote in their journals about gratitude, keeping track of the things they were thankful for The other group wrote about engaging topics from their lives that weren’t specific to gratitude.

Gratitude journaling seemed to work. Keeping a written account about gratitude led people to report experiencing more of the emotion. Other research also indicates that gratitude practice make people more supportive of others and improves relationships.

Study participants also exhibited a change in how their brains responded to giving. In the MRI scanner the group that practiced gratitude by journaling increased the “pure altruism” measure in the reward regions of the brain. Response to charity-gain increase more than those to self-gain.

Practicing gratitude shifted the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity become more valuable than receiving money oneself. After the brain calculated the exchange rate, you get paid in the neural currency of the reward, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal attainment.

So, in terms of the brain’s reward response, it really can be true that giving is better than receiving.

Meditation is another technique to enhance altruism. In particular, loving kindness meditation done by experienced Buddhist monks revealed impressive brain activity.
To learn more about loving kindness meditation enter “loving kindness meditation” into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

How Placebos Could Change Research and Practice

March 29, 2015

The title was on the cover of the April 2015 Monitor on Psychology of the American Psychological Association.  Inside the issue was an article by Stacy Lu, “Great expectations:  New research is leading to an understanding of how placebos work—findings that may lead to more effective treatments and better drug research.  Our understanding and attitudes towards placebos is advancing.

In one study neuroscience researcher Shaffer and his colleagues asked participants to apply a “powerful analgesic” on their hands and arms.  Then the researchers administered small bursts of heat where the cream had been applied.  The cream was actually petroleum jelly, but participants reported that the s-called powerful cream protected them from feeling as much of a burn  as a control cream.  Even after the researchers showed them that the active cream was just petroleum jelly, it made little difference.  The participants still reported less pain from the heat when they were re-tested versus the control cream (The Journal of Pain, 2015).

Today scientists are studying  placebos as a psychobiological  phenomenon and the placebo response as a potentially important part of the success of many medical treatments.  Psychological assessments, brain scans, and genotyping are used  to understand better how placebo responses work and to identify who may be most likely to respond to them.  Placebos are similar to cognitive therapies in that they tap into people’s beliefs that there’s hope and that they will get better.

A meta-analysis of 25 neuroimaging studies of pain and placebos conducted by Wager and Atlas of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that people who took placebos and expected have reduced pain had less activity in brain regions associated with pain processing, including the dorsal anterior cingulate, thamalus, and insula (Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology, 2014).

Research suggests that placebos have the greater effect in neural systems involved with processing reward seeking, motivation, and emotion.  Placebos seem to work especially well in patients with depression, Parkinson’s disease, and pain.  All three conditions involve the neurotransmitter dopamine.  These are also areas where people can consciously monitor their own treatment results.

In a study of patients with Parkinson’s disease Wager and colleagues found that simply expecting medication altered brain activity in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex in brain areas associated with reward learning in ways similar to actual dopaminergic medication (Nature Neuroscience, 2014).

In another study of people with migraines, placebos elicited a response without any verbal cue to effectiveness,   Slavenka Kam-Hansen and colleagues openly labeled placebo pills for some patients who reported as much pain relief as those who also got a placebo but had been told that they’d received real medication. (Science Translational Medicine, 2014).

Genetics research has found that participants with a specific genotype related to having more dopamine in the prefrontal cortex reported having a larger effect from a placebo  treatment  than participants with a genotype that produces less dopamine in the prefrontal cortex (PLOS ONE, 2012).

Children seem to respond especially well to placebos.  In one study their placebo response was 5.6 that of adults (The Journal of Pain, 2014).

Patients are interested and enthusiastic about placebo  treatments.  They are pleased to discover that they can contribute to their own healing.