Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training

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Science Advances  04 Oct 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 10, e1700489
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700489

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Although neuroscientific research has revealed experience-dependent brain changes across the life span in sensory, motor, and cognitive domains, plasticity relating to social capacities remains largely unknown. To investigate whether the targeted mental training of different cognitive and social skills can induce specific changes in brain morphology, we collected longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data throughout a 9-month mental training intervention from a large sample of adults between 20 and 55 years of age. By means of various daily mental exercises and weekly instructed group sessions, training protocols specifically addressed three functional domains: (i) mindfulness-based attention and interoception, (ii) socio-affective skills (compassion, dealing with difficult emotions, and prosocial motivation), and (iii) socio-cognitive skills (cognitive perspective-taking on self and others and metacognition). MRI-based cortical thickness analyses, contrasting the different training modules against each other, indicated spatially diverging changes in cortical morphology. Training of present-moment focused attention mostly led to increases in cortical thickness in prefrontal regions, socio-affective training induced plasticity in frontoinsular regions, and socio-cognitive training included change in inferior frontal and lateral temporal cortices. Module-specific structural brain changes correlated with training-induced behavioral improvements in the same individuals in domain-specific measures of attention, compassion, and cognitive perspective-taking, respectively, and overlapped with task-relevant functional networks. Our longitudinal findings indicate structural plasticity in well-known socio-affective and socio-cognitive brain networks in healthy adults based on targeted short daily mental practices. These findings could promote the development of evidence-based mental training interventions in clinical, educational, and corporate settings aimed at cultivating social intelligence, prosocial motivation, and cooperation.

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