Emotional stress lights up
same region on fMRI as physical pain
November 6, 2003
By C.P. Kaiser
the ache of a broken heart has been the domain of poets, while
the pain of a broken bone has fallen to the care of doctors. But
new research has found that they are neural cousins, showing activation
of similar brain regions.
Functional MRI tracked the brain activation patterns of college
students who thought they were being snubbed socially. The regions
of the brain they used to soothe the pain of exclusion are known
to be involved with dampening physical pain as well.
ìBecause of the adaptive value of mammalian social bonds, the
social attachment system, which keeps the young near caregivers,
may have piggybacked onto the physical pain system to promote
survival,î the authors wrote. The study was published in the Oct.
10 issue of Science.
Naomi I. Eisenberger, Ph.D., and colleagues from the University
of California, Los Angeles and Macquarie University in Sydney,
Australia, believe that drugs can be targeted to these regions
to help patients with extreme cases of social anxiety or depression.
The researchers acquired three fMR scans of nine female and four
male college students while they played a virtual ball-tossing
game. Participants were told they were playing with two other
players also undergoing fMR scans, but they were actually playing
against a preprogrammed computer.
For the first scan (implicit social exclusion), researchers told
the participants that technical difficulties would allow them
only to watch the other ìplayers.î The second scan was a control
scan during which players interacted without any exclusionary
For the last scan (explicit social exclusion), participants received
seven throws and were then excluded when the pre-set computer
game stopped throwing the ball to them for the remainder of the
scan (about 45 throws). Afterward, each student reported his or
her level of distress at being excluded by the other players.
During both social exclusion conditions, the anterior cingulate
cortex was more active in students who reported greater distress.
During the explicit exclusion scans, however, the right ventral
prefrontal cortex was also activated. This region, part of the
conscious thinking system, helps regulate negative emotion. Specifically,
it dampens negative effect, said coauthor Matthew D. Lieberman,
Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA.
For this region to be activated, however, people must consciously
think about negative emotion. In the explicit exclusion condition,
participants knew that they were being intentionally excluded.
As result, they thought about the social snub, which activated
the ventral prefrontal area to help alleviate the pain, Lieberman
No such activation was needed during the implicit exclusion phase
because participants attributed their lack of play to technical
Researchers will next use fMRI to examine how the cingulate cortex
response to a social exclusion stressor links up with the bodyís
response to other stressors. When activated too frequently, biological
bodily stress responses lead to major health risks, Lieberman
ìWe think those whose anterior cingulate is activated the most
in response to social stressors may also show the biggest biological
stress response in the body,î he said. ìThese people are more
likely to be at risk in terms of adverse health outcomes.