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Activation of a Particular Brain Region Predicts Altruism: Study

Researchers have discovered that activation of a particular brain region predicts whether people tend to be selfish or altruistic.// The results of this Duke University Medical Center study were published in the Sunday, Jan 21 online edition of Nature Neuroscience.

"Although understanding the function of this brain region may not necessarily identify what drives people like Mother Theresa, it may give clues to the origins of important social behaviors like altruism," said study investigator Scott A. Huettel, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center.

The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health and will be published in the February 2007 print issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Altruism describes the tendency of people to act in ways that put the welfare of others ahead of their own. Why some people choose to act altruistically is unclear, says lead study investigator Dharol Tankersley, a graduate student in Huettel's laboratory.

In the study, researchers scanned the brains of 45 people while they either played a computer game or watched the computer play the game on its own. In both cases, successful playing of the game earned money for a charity of the study participant's choice.

The researchers scanned the participants' brains using a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses harmless magnetic pulses to measure changes in oxygen levels that indicate nerve cell activity.

The scans revealed that a region of the brain called the posterior superior temporal sulcus was activated to a greater degree when people perceived an action -- that is, when they watched the computer play the game -- than when they acted themselves, Tankersley said. This region, which lies in the top and back portion of the brain, is generally activated when the mind is trying to figure out social relationships.

The researchers then characterized the p
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