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The neural basis of prosocial development in adolescence

Periodic Reporting for period 5 - PROSOCIAL (The neural basis of prosocial development in adolescence)

Periodo di rendicontazione: 2021-10-01 al 2022-09-30

The goal of this project was to examine a novel theoretical perspective on adolescent development, that moved from brain development as a period of risk, to brain development as a period of opportunities. Prior work indicated an imbalance in brain development with a faster development of emotion regions relative to control regions in adolescence. These patterns were interpreted to suggest that adolescence is a time of risk, for example related to substance abuse or seeking immediate gratification. In reality, however, only a small proportion of adolescents experience this type of problem behavior, whereas the majority develops into social competent and societally contributing individuals. This project aimed to investigate whether the same neural sensitivity that has previously been associated with risk behavior, may also foster social learning and prosocial behavior.
The project was separated in two work packages: the first work package examined the normative development of prosocial behavior in a longitudinal design, including measures of brain and behavior. Currently the results of the first wave of data collection have been published in a series of scientific journals and covers the cross-sectional (first time point) comparisons of giving and sharing. In addition, one project that examined social delay-of-gratification at the second time point has been submitted for publication. The longitudinal comparisons across the three time points are still being analyzed and will lead to scientific results in the next two years. The second work package took a different approach than originally planned. Whereas the initial plan was to examine brain changes related to a prosocial contribution intervention, the pandemic did not allow us to perform these brain scans. In contrast, we quickly modified the plans to make the project of use for the immediate crisis. We designed an intervention that could be distributed much more widely and we could reach many more adolescents, who were performing acts of kindness in the context of the pandemic.
We found that prosocial development depends on several contextual factors, including the target to whom the giving behavior is directed and whether prosocial acts are observed by others. We further observed that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with cognitive control, is more engaged for small giving in younger adolescents and large giving in older adolescents, demonstrating a shift in strategies for giving. Next, we found that sharing leads to similar activation in the reward network of the brain for self and close others, specifically parents, but not for distant others, such as strangers. A subgroup of parents who also participated in the study displayed similar reward activity in the brain when sharing with their children. In the upcoming two years, we will further examine which parts of giving, sharing and helping can be stimulated using interventions and whether there are sensitive phases in development for fostering prosocial behavior. We expect to find that contributing to needs to others is a fundamental need and gives vigor to adolescents, boosts positive feelings and reduces negative feelings.

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