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Social Status Plays Role in Brain's Control of Health

Imaging shows where you are in pecking order affects performance, motivation

THURSDAY, April 24 (HealthDay News) -- New information about how the brain processes social status is outlined in a study by researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Using functional MRI scans, they found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in social status or sees people who are socially superior or inferior. Brain circuitry activated by important events responded to potential change in social status as much as it did to winning money.

The study was published in the April 24 issue of Neuron.

"Our position in social hierarchies strongly influences motivation as well as physical and mental health. This first glimpse into how the brain processes that information advances our understanding of an important factor that can impact public health," NIMH Director Dr. Thomas R. Insel said in a prepared statement.

Previous research has shown that social status has a strong effect on health. For example, one study of British civil servants found that the lower a person's rank, the more likely they were to develop cardiovascular disease and die early. Psychological effects, such as having limited control over one's life and interactions with others, may be one way that lower social rank compromises health, according to background information in a news release about the study.

The NIMH researchers created an artificial social hierarchy in which 72 volunteers played an interactive computer game for money. The participants were assigned a social status and were told it was based on their playing skill. However, the game outcomes were predetermined, and the other "players" were simulated by computer.

While their brain activity was monitored by fMRI, the volunteers intermittently saw pictures and scores of inferior and superior "players" they believed were playing in other rooms at the same time. The fMRI showed that the participants' perceived position in the gaming hierarchy greatly influenced their brain activity and behavior.

"The processing of hierarchical information seems to be hard-wired, occurring even outside of an explicitly competitive environment, underscoring how important it is for us," said study author Caroline Zink, of the NIHM Genes Cognition and Psychosis Program.

More information

For more on the parts of the human brain, visit the National Institute on Aging.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: U.S. National Institute of Mental Health, news release, April 23, 2008

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