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Emory brain imaging studies reveal biological basis for human cooperation

Functional MRI scans have revealed a "biologically embedded" basis for altruistic behavior, with several characteristic regions of the brain being activated when players of a game called "Prisoner's Dilemma" decide to trust each other and cooperate, rather than betray each other for immediate gain, say researchers from Emory University. They report on their study in the July 18 issue of the journal Neuron, published by Cell Press.

For many years, evolutionary biologists, behaviorists, economists and political scientists have attempted to understand why cooperation exists between human beings, even though that cooperation may not result in a direct or immediate reward. This unselfish behavior called "altruism" is almost uniquely a human trait.

Up until now, almost all brain imaging experiments that have studied the social brain have done so by exposing subjects to static 2-D images inside the scanner. "This study represents an attempt to learn about the social brain by scanning people as they are engaged in a true social interaction," said James K. Rilling, Ph.D., principal investigator in the Emory study, who is currently serving a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton University. In the Fall of 2003, Dr. Rilling will return to Emory as a faculty member with a joint appointment in the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience (CBN) at Emory University School of Medicine and the Emory University Department of Anthroplogy.

In two separate experiments, the researchers used fMRI to scan the brains of 36 women while they played the "Prisoner's Dilemma Game," a decades-old model for cooperation based on reciprocal altruism. Two players independently chose to either cooperate with each other or not (defect), and each was awarded a sum of money that depended upon the interaction of both players' choices in that round.

In the first experiment, 19 subjects were scanned in four game sessions designed to observe neural function during coo
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Contact: Kathi Ovnic
covnic@emory.edu
404-727-9371
Emory University Health Sciences Center
17-Jul-2002


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