Providing “targeted” social support to other people in need activates regions of the brain involved in parental care– which may help researchers understand the positive health effects of social ties, reports a study in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine, the official journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. The journal is published in the Lippincott Portfolio by Wolters Kluwer.

By comparison, providing “untargeted” support such as giving to
charity does not have the same neurobiological effects, according to the
new research by Tristen K. Inagaki, PhD, and Lauren P. Ross, BA, of
University of Pittsburgh. “Our results highlight the unique benefits of
giving targeted support and elucidate neural pathways by which giving
support may lead to health,” the researchers write.

Study May Show ‘Neural Pathway’ By Which Providing Support Improves Health

The researchers performed a pair of experiments to evaluate brain
responses to providing different kinds of social support. In the first
study, 45 volunteers performed a “giving support” task where they had a
chance to win rewards for someone close to them who needed money
(targeted support), for charity (untargeted support), or for themselves.
As predicted, participants felt more socially connected, and felt that
their support was more effective, when giving targeted social support.

The subjects then underwent an emotional ratings task including
functional MRI scanning to assess activation of specific brain areas
when giving social support. Providing support, regardless of who
received the support, was linked to increased activation of the ventral
striatum (VS) and septal area (SA) – regions previously linked to
parental care behaviors in animals. However, only higher activation of
the SA when people gave targeted support was associated with lower
activity in a brain structure called the amygdala – sometimes linked to
fear and stress responses.  

In the second study, 382 participants provided information on their
behavior in giving support (prosocial behavior) and underwent a
different emotional ratings task with functional MRI scanning. Once
again, those who reported giving more targeted support to others also
showed reduced activity in the amygdala. In both studies, giving
untargeted support (such as giving to charity) was unrelated to amygdala

“Humans thrive off social connections and benefit when they act in
the service of others’ well-being,” according to the authors. A previous
study by Dr. Inagaki, also published in Psychosomatic Medicine,
found that giving social support has positive effects on brain areas
involved in stress and reward responses. That study suggested that
providing support – not just receiving it – may be an important
contributor to the physical and mental health benefits of social

The new study adds further evidence that giving targeted support may
be uniquely beneficial. Both targeted and untargeted support are linked
to increased SA activity, supporting the “warm glow” theory of
providing support: we help others, directly or indirectly, simply
because it “feels good.”  

But the link between increased SA activation and decreased amygdala
activity “suggests a neural pathway by which giving support ultimately
influence health that is specific to targeted forms of support-giving,
such as giving to specific people we know are in need,” Dr. Inagaki and
Ms. Ross write. The authors note that their study cannot show a
cause-and-effect of providing support on activation of the SA or
amygdala. They also point out that providing targeted social support
does not always lead to improved health – for example, prolonged
caregiving for an ill family member can be detrimental to health.  

The study adds to previous evidence that providing social support to
others “may be an overlooked contributor to the well-known link between
social ties and health,” Dr. Inagaki and Ms. Ross write. They conclude:
“Giving targeted support to an identifiable individual in need is
uniquely associated with reduced amygdala activity thereby contributing
to understanding of how and when giving support may lead to health.”

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