Neurological basis for altruism

I don't usually read Nature Neuroscience, but this is an interesting neuro-economics piece.

Dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex orchestrate normative choice

Thomas Baumgartner, Daria Knoch, Philine Hotz, Christoph Eisenegger & Ernst Fehr

Abstract: Humans are noted for their capacity to over-ride self-interest in favor of normatively valued goals. We examined the neural circuitry that is causally involved in normative, fairness-related decisions by generating a temporarily diminished capacity for costly normative behavior, a 'deviant' case, through non-invasive brain stimulation (repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation) and compared normal subjects' functional magnetic resonance imaging signals with those of the deviant subjects. When fairness and economic self-interest were in conflict, normal subjects (who make costly normative decisions at a much higher frequency) displayed significantly higher activity in, and connectivity between, the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the posterior ventromedial prefrontal cortex (pVMPFC). In contrast, when there was no conflict between fairness and economic self-interest, both types of subjects displayed identical neural patterns and behaved identically. These findings suggest that a parsimonious prefrontal network, the activation of right DLPFC and pVMPFC, and the connectivity between them, facilitates subjects' willingness to incur the cost of normative decisions.

(a) Overlay of the pVMPFC cluster that showed a larger change in connectivity after unfair offers (compared with fair offers) with the right DLPFC in the left compared with the right TMS group (yellow, at P < 0.005, cluster extent = 18 voxels42) and the pVMPFC cluster that showed differential activation in the contrast unfair > fair offers in the left compared with the right TMS group (red). Overlapping voxels are displayed in orange. (b) Bar plots based on the functional ROI (red) from a indicate that the differential context-dependent change in connectivity between the left and right TMS group was qualified by a differential change in connectivity during unfair offers (unfair connectivity), but not during fair offers (fair connectivity). The left TMS group therefore only showed an increased connectivity between the right DLPFC and pVMPFC at P < 0.01 during unfair offers, whereas the connectivity between these two brain regions did not change (relative to baseline connectivity) after fair offers. Moreover, after right TMS, the connectivity between right DLPFC and pVMPFC never deviated from the baseline (indicated by the two black bars); that is, these brain regions no longer communicated more after unfair offers. Bar plots depict mean ± s.e.m. [From Nature Neuroscience]

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