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Plasticity of the Social Brain

Another important focus of the Department of Social Neuroscience is on the plasticity of the social brain and the investigation of trainability of socio-affective functions. To this end, we are conducting small- and large-scale longitudinal training studies to search for evidence of malleability of socio-emotional as well as cognitive skills such as empathy, compassion, affect regulation, cognitive perspective taking, mindfulness, attention, and memory. In the context of these studies, we are researching whether training can significantly induce functional and long-lasting structural neuronal, as well as hormonal, health-related, and behavioral changes. To achieve these goals, we implement a multi-disciplinary and multi-method approach. For example, to determine whether health and subjective well-being can be improved via training, we apply event-sampling methods and assess day-to-day changes in subjective affect and well-being. Then, we link these data to fluctuations in health- and stress-related hormonal markers such as daily cortisol.
Analyzing longitudinal changes in cortical thickness measurements and diffusion imaging data across serial high-resolution MRI acquisitions, we also assess long-lasting alterations in cortical and sub-cortical network integrity in individuals undergoing socio-affective training. Mapping changes in functional MRI signals assessed through a variety of affective and cognitive tasks onto cortical surface models, we investigate the relationship between training-induced dynamic functional as well as structural cortical network remodelling. Furthermore, we assess whether specific psychological traits, genetic dispositions, and cortical network configurations at baseline can be used to predict individual differences in training outcomes for study participants. To assess training-related changes in prosocial motivation and behavior, we use a battery of paradigms from social psychology as well as experimental economics and combine them with virtual reality paradigms facilitating the measurement of explicit as well as implicit behavioral and motivational tendencies.
Finally, to investigate the plasticity of the social brain, we are also exploring the use of new techniques such as real-time fMRI, in which participants use biofeedback to learn to enhance their brain activity in brain areas relevant for social emotions and emotion regulation.
In sum, we search for evidence of socio-emotional, behavioral, and brain plasticity changes. Such evidence would not only have important implications for the implementation of scientifically validated, effective training programs for schools and economic or political organizations, but also for the treatment of people with marked social deficits, such as autistic or psychopathic individuals.

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Last update: Feb 4, 2014 3.43.05 pm
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