By William Harms
Photo by Robert Kozloff

We can’t limit our study of people strictly to their biological functions. We are influenced by our social connections.”
—Prof. John Cacioppo

Knowing when someone is being harmed on purpose is a crucial element of moral thinking, even in children. But University of Chicago neuroscientist Jean Decety’s work has shown that people's neural response to intentional harm varies by age, with adults being more discriminative in determining moral culpability.

Fellow scholar John Cacioppo has pioneered the study of loneliness, showing that it can influence a person’s health as much as cigarette smoking, obesity, or a lack of exercise. A sense of isolation affects key cellular processes within the brain, heart, and immune system, Cacioppo has found.

Their work on how people’s social lives relate to neural, hormonal, and genetic mechanisms has helped define a field called social neuroscience. Cacioppo and Decety formally established the international, interdisciplinary Society for Social Neuroscience in 2010 and have since turned UChicago into a global center for its study by launching a number of research projects to examine the brain and body’s responses to the social world.

“I realized that we will never be able to understand such human ability as moral judgment or empathy without studying the brain, its development, and evolutionary history,” says Decety, the Irving B. Harris Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry, who studies brain scans to examine the neurobiological mechanisms of empathy.

“We can’t limit our study of people strictly to their biological functions. We are influenced by our social connections,” says Cacioppo, the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology, who coined the term “social neuroscience” more than 20 years ago. “Gene expression can be turned on or off, for example, by social conditions.”

Creating new space for discovery

The term “social neuroscience” first appeared in a 1992 American Psychologist article Cacioppo co-authored while he was a professor at Ohio State. The paper was intended to assess the future of the fields of neuroscience and psychology. It examined the evidence supporting the study of mechanisms across multiple levels of organization.

Cacioppo continued his work in the area after he joined the UChicago faculty in 1999, and in 2006, Decety joined the UChicago faculty from the University of Washington, Seattle.

In a 2010 paper, “Social Neuroscience: Challenges and Opportunities in the Study of Complex Behavior,” Cacioppo and Decety defined the need for the field and explored its promise.

Social neuroscience is a tree growing from two strong roots, they wrote: One root comes from data gathered on humans and non-human animals, grounded in psychology and biology, and the other root is grounded in genetics and biomedicine. The two disciplines had little communication, necessitating the formation of the new field, Cacioppo and Decety explained.

Cacioppo and Decety founded the Society for Social Neuroscience in 2010; Decety is president while Cacioppo is a past president. The group has grown in size and scope; at last fall’s conference, scholars presented papers on topics as the social environment and its effect on drugs of abuse; the social nature of primate cognition; evolutionary insights from behavioral genomics of natural populations of social bees and wasps; and the social neuroscience of maternal attachment style.

Defining the future

At UChicago and around the world, social neuroscientists are conducting experiments using animal models and new technology, such as fMRI equipment.

Decety has done seminal work on the neurobiological mechanisms of empathy and prosocial behavior, expanding people’s understanding of how the brain responds when people experience empathy and a motivation to care for the well-being of others, and the lack of empathy in psychopaths.

He also has studied ways in which people don’t have the capacity to care for others and has received a $1.6 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to use fMRI technology to examine the neural circuitry of criminal psychopaths. Decety and his colleagues are measuring the activity of brain networks necessary to experience empathy among a prison population and compare the results with data from healthy individuals.

In order to understand how empathy develops in humans from infancy, Decety has recently established the Child NeuroSuite. Located on the third floor of the Department of Psychology, the space hosts developmental social neuroscience research with babies and young children. The neurosuite is equipped with two high-density EEG systems, two eye-tracking devices, physiological recording equipment for measurements of the autonomic nervous system, and video cameras to monitor children’s behavior.

“Currently we are examining the dynamics of brain processing of morality in infants and young children,” he says.“We combine EEG and eye-tracking measurements in babies and toddlers with behavioral tasks that assess various basic elements of morality, including sensitivity to fairness, sharing, and social evaluations.”

Examining monogamy in mice

Years after Cacioppo’s 2008 landmark book Loneliness showed how social isolation undermines health as well as mental well-being, he now sees animal studies as an area of promise for new discoveries.

“We can learn a great deal from a vole, a simple field mouse, for instance,” he says. Researchers found that the socially responsive meadow vole has oxytocin receptors in regions of the brain associated with rewards.

That discovery led to further work that showed that socially active animals, including humans, also have oxytocin receptors close to brain regions associated with rewards. That work showed that intranasal administration of oxytocin, which is associated with bonding, improved mood.

Meadow voles are more likely to form monogamous relationships, but researchers are reluctant to conclude that a shot of oxytocin at the right moment might encourage a man and woman to become a couple.

“People are more complicated than that,” Cacioppo says.