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April 6, 2015   Columns Articles | Research News | Study finds brain structure varies depending on trust…

Study finds brain structure varies depending on trust level

Jessica Luton

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By Jessica Luton | April 6, 2015
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Brain structure varies depending on how well people trust others, according to a study by UGA researchers.

The research may have implications for future treatments of psychological conditions, said the study's lead author Brian Haas, an assistant professor in the psychology department of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

"There are conditions, like autism, that are characterized by deficits in being able to process the world socially, one of which is the ability to trust people," Haas said. "Here we have converging evidence that these brain regions are important for trust, and if we can understand how these differences relate to specific social processes, then we may be able to develop more targeted treatment techniques for people who have deficits in social cognition."

Haas and his team of researchers used two measures to determine the trust levels of 82 study participants.

Participants filled out a self-reported questionnaire about their tendency to trust others. They also were shown pictures of people with neutral facial expressions and asked to evaluate how trustworthy they found each person in the picture. This gave researchers a metric, on a spectrum, of how trusting each participant was of others.

Researchers then took MRI scans of the participants' brains to determine how brain structure is associated with the tendency to be more trusting of others. What researchers found, Haas said, were differences in two areas of the brain.

"The most important finding was that the gray matter volume was greater in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which is the brain region that serves to evaluate social rewards, in people who tended to be more trusting of others," he said. "Another finding that we observed was for a brain region called the amygdala. The volume of this area of the brain, which codes for emotional saliency, was greater in those who were both most trusting and least trusting of others. If something is emotionally important to us, the amygdala helps us code and remember it."

The study was published in the journal NeuroImage. Haas' research team included undergraduate students Alexandra Ishak and Ian Anderson and graduate student Megan Filkowski.

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