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Recent Studies

Neural Reactivity to Emotions Supports Link Between Empathy in Late Childhood and Prosocial Behavior in Early Adolescence

*Flournoy J.C., Pfeifer J.H., *Moore W. E. III, *Tackman A. Mazziotta J.C., Iacoboni M., Dapretto M. (in press). Neural reactivity to emotional expressions mediates the relationship between childhood empathy and adolescent prosocial behavior. Child Development. 

When one is faced with the emotional distress of another person, one’s response often falls somewhere between distress and concern. Importantly, these initial, visceral responses can lead to very different decisions: the distressed person disengages, while the concerned person may be motivated to help ease the suffering of the other. The brain processes that let us make sense of the emotional states of others sometimes overlap with the systems that generate our own emotions. As children transition into adolescence, their brains and their tendency to respond with empathic concern or distress are changing rapidly. We investigated how the sensitivity of different empathy-related brain regions is related to these changes in empathic tendencies, and whether development in both areas predict real-world prosocial behavior — specifically, regular volunteering in the community.

Age-related changes in reappraisal of appetitive cravings during adolescence

Giuliani, N. R., & Pfeifer, J. H. (2015) Age-related changes in reappraisal of appetitive cravings during adolescence. NeuroImage, 108, 173-181. 

The ability to regulate temptation is an important aspect of healthy adolescent development, but the brain systems underlying this process are understudied. In the present study, 60 healthy females between the ages of 10 and 23 used cognitive regulation to decrease their desire for personally-craved and not craved unhealthy foods. Viewing personally-craved foods (versus not craved foods) elicited activity in brain regions known to be involved in reward processing, and regulating those desires recruited brain regions classically involved in top-down self-regulation regions, including the lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC). Individual differences in this activity include relatively more PFC activity during the regulation of their personally-craved foods in older participants compared to younger ones. This study is the first to investigate age-related changes in temptation regulation. Therefore, cognitive regulation of food craving in particular may be an effective way to teach teenagers to manage the desire for the temptations encountered in adolescence, including alcohol, drugs, and unhealthy food.

But do you think I’m cool? Brain differences in adolescent and adult self-processing

*Jankowski, K. F., *Moore, W. E. III, *Merchant, J. S., *Kahn, L. E., & Pfeifer, J. H. (2014). But do you think I’m cool? Developmental differences in striatal recruitment during direct and reflected social self-evaluations. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 8, 40-54. pdf

This study explored differences in brain patterns during early adolescent and young adult self-evaluations. Eighteen adolescents (11-14 years) and 19 adults (21-31 years) evaluated if academic, physical, and social traits described themselves, their best friend, or themselves from their best friend’s perspective. Adolescents and adults activated cortical midline structures associated with social cognition during all three types of evaluations. Uniquely, when making social self-evaluations from their best friend’s perspective, adolescents showed greatest activation within striatal regions associated with reward-processing, and this activity increased with pubertal status. This study highlights the importance of peers in adolescent self-perceptions; it demonstrates that inferred social self-evaluations made from the perspective of a close peer may be especially salient or rewarding to adolescent self-processing, particularly throughout pubertal development.

Neural Processing of Dynamic Peer Emotions: Developmental Trajectories and Adolescent Well-Being

*Flannery, J.E., Giuliani, N. R., *Flournoy J.C., Pfeifer J.H. (in preparation). 

Emotional processes are critical to our daily functioning. We constantly use our own and others’ emotions to assess our physical and social environment, and adapt our behavior. Research would suggest that this developmental process is particularly important and undergoes major changes in adolescence due to a myriad of factors including: onset of puberty, increased hormonal production, increased neural plasticity, and social reorientation away from parents toward peers. We extended prior research by assessing brain activity during understudies aspects of affect, motivation, and control: viewing and labeling dynamic peer emotional displays. Observing and identifying dynamic peer expressions recruited expected networks implicated in emotion processing and regulation, including bilateral amygdala, medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), and lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC). However, developmental trajectories in recruitment of these regions and associations with individual differences in well-being varied from prior cross-sectional fMRI studies. This suggests existing models may need refinement to more adequately capture neurobiological foundations of adolescent-emergent and adolescent-specific patterns of behavior and mental health. 

* = student authors



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