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Social Cognition in Adolescents: Brain Networks and Social Networks

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - SCANS (Social Cognition in Adolescents: Brain Networks and Social Networks)

Okres sprawozdawczy: 2020-08-01 do 2022-01-31

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To function successfully in complex social environments, we need the skills to understand others and interact with them. Social neuroscience has made enormous progress in identifying the mechanisms underlying these abilities. This research revealed, for example, that social reward shares the neural representation of the basic reward system, and likewise, social pain shares the neural representation of physical pain.

Development during adolescence is characterized by rapid changes in the social brain. A key feature is an increased sensitivity to social reward and social pain, which is a double-edged sword - advantageous in facilitating the learning of complex social skills, but detrimental, when it encourages unhealthy peer concordant behavior or when repeated exclusion leads to social disengagement. It is therefore crucial to understand the interplay between adolescent social brain development and their social experiences.

Yet, neuroscientific approaches alone cannot capture the full dynamics of our social world. For this, we need the theories and tools of the social sciences. Social network analysis provides the tools to capture the increasing complexity of adolescents’ social environment. The aim of this proposal is to understand social-cognitive development in adolescence from the biological to the social, by integrating social neuroscience with social network approaches. The key objectives is to investigate longitudinally how neural correlates of social cognition relate to social behaviour in daily life and to social network position and structure.
A large sample of adolescents (n=900, age range 12-15) from over 40 classes participated in the research. Their social cognitive abilities and emotional wellbeing were assessed with tasks and questionnaires, and their classroom relationships with peer nomination procedures. The measurements were conducted six times in total, with six months intervals. Subsamples of the adolescents participated in a functional neuroimaging study (n=86, 3 times with one-year interval) and an ecological momentary assessment or diary study (n=50, 2 times with one-year interval).

The results show ongoing brain and behavioural development of social cognitive abilities in this age period, with differential trajectories for boys and girls. Position in the social network was associated with specific neural and behavioral indices of social cognition, specifically with social reward. Emotional wellbeing in daily life was sensitive to the social context, with lower valence and arousal when alone compared to when in company.

The work has resulted in over 25 publications in international peer-reviewed journals, and several papers are in preparation or currently under review. Three PhD students have written their dissertation on the project results and are expected to graduate this year.
The combination of behavioural data, social network data, experience sampling data and functional neuroimaging data in a longitudinal design is novel and has identified unique relationships between peer factors and the social brain. The extension of the project to individuals with (a risk for) psychosis has highlighted how aberrant social cognitive processes and social contextual factors interact in the pathway to psychopathology. This research is important, because adolescence is a sensitive period in which increased sensitivity to peer influences may lead to positive but also to negative outcomes with long-lasting impact, and understanding the interactions between social context and the social brain may inform prevention and intervention.
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