Researchers identify a potential neural signature of social belonging

A new study of neuroimaging results from people in the United Kingdom compared members of sports teams, religious groups, social clubs, and people who reported not participating in any of these types of groups. The results showed that the functional connectivity of default mode and the brain’s limbic networks differed between people who reported participation in these three types of social groups and those who did not. The study was published in cerebral cortex.

Human beings are social beings. Belonging to social groups is one of people’s basic emotional needs. It is crucial to a person’s mental health and well-being. Studies have shown that people who experience social isolation and disconnection tend to report lower levels of physical health as well. Interpersonal interaction in social groups is the main mechanism that creates the structure of our society.

“Experiencing team spirit at a vibrant football match, enjoying a beer in a bar with like-minded people, or resting in silent collective prayer – these are formative experiences that underpin human social life,” said the authors of the current study.

But do brain activity patterns and structures differ between people who regularly engage in social activities and those who don’t? The brain networks that were of particular interest to researchers in this regard were the default mode network and the limbic network.

The default mode network is a large network of brain cells that increases in activity when the person is not focused on the outside world and is at rest while awake. It consists of brain cells located in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, posterior/precuneus cingulate cortex, and angular gyrus regions of the brain.

The limbic network is a network of higher brain functions involved in emotions and episodic memory and is comprised of the hypothalamus, hippocampus, mamillary body, thalamus, cingulate gyrus, parahippocampal gyrus, and the entorhinal cortex regions of the brain.

Study author Carolin Kieckhaefer and her colleagues wanted to explore whether the brains of people who regularly participate in social groups differ in structure and connectivity from the brains of people who don’t. They analyzed data from 40,000 people included in the UK Biobank database for whom MRI measurements were available and who also answered the question about whether they participated in activities of sports teams, religious groups or social clubs at least once a week or more. frequently (“Which of the following do you attend once a week or more?”).

When team sports activities were considered, the authors report that they “found regions of the limbic and standard network, as well as the lingual gyrus, prefrontal and temporal cortex as the main brain correlates linked to weekly involvement in a sports team.”

The results showed that variations in the volume of the limbic network, the somatomotor network and the default mode network were associated with participation in religious groups. “The prominent effect with greater uncertainty was seen in the limbic network, while the more certain network-level volume effect was located in the default-mode network,” report the study authors.

Social club participation was linked to limbic network activity, but the authors list that the most informative brain networks for social club attendance were the visual network, closely followed by the default mode network.

“Sports team regulars showed wide deviations in intranet connectivity from standard and limbic networks,” the researchers said. “People who participate in religious groups, in turn, were especially characterized by a composition of functional connections within the network within the default mode network, limbic network and, to some extent, also in the frontoparietal control network.”

“In contrast to these 2 types of social participation, social participation in social clubs did not lead to a salient increase in functional connectivity strengths in most of the mentioned networks. Instead, a relevant decrease in functional connectivity was observed in the default mode network and in limbic networks as the most coherent deviation pattern.”

“Among all three types of groups examined, we identified the default mode network and the limbic network as central to social participation,” the researchers concluded.

The study sheds light on the neural correlates of social participation. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, social participation was measured using just one short question and it was self-reported. Studies that used more detailed measures of social participation may not produce identical results.

The study “Social belonging: brain structure and function is linked to participation in sports teams, religious groups and social clubs”, was written by Carolin Kieckhaefer, Leonhard Schilbach and Danilo Bzdok.

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