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Identifying Neural Correlates of Altruism

Principal Investigator:

Abigail A. Marsh, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Georgetown University

The proposed research will assess neural functioning in extraordinary altruists and compare it with that of matched controls in an effort to better understand the neural substrates of altruistic, compassionate behavior.

Altruistic behavior is motivated by concern for another's well being. Sensitivity to others' fearful facial expressions predicts individual differences in altruism better than gender, mood, self-reported empathy, or general sensitivity to others' emotion. The capacity to respond appropriately to fearful expressions is thought to rely on the integrity of the amygdala and its connections to prefrontal cortex. We predict that exceptionally altruistic individuals will show enhanced recognition of fearful expressions, increased amygdala activation when viewing these expressions, improved ability to respond appropriately to others' distress, and enhanced amygdala-prefrontal connectivity when making these responses.

Altruistic subjects will be recruited from organizations that verify altruistic behaviors, such as altruistic organ donations and charitable donations to strangers. Following online screening, altruistic and control subjects will undergo functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Subjects will complete three short neuroimaging tasks that assess amygdala and prefrontal responses to fearful expressions and the integrity of the connections between amygdala and prefrontal cortex.

The results of the proposed research would be the first to assess neurocognitive function in exceptionally altruistic individuals. These findings have the potential to lead to policy changes in charitable programs, such as organ transplantation programs, whose current policies reflect skepticism about the possibility of altruism and the ability of scientists to detect its occurrence.


Abigail A. Marsh, M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University, Social Psychology; B.A. Dartmouth College, Psychology, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University. Following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Marsh shifted her graduate research to focus on understanding compassion, empathy, and altruism. This research culminated in her dissertation, which demonstrated that the ability to recognize fearful facial expressions predicts individual differences in altruism. Prior to this, fear recognition had been linked to antisocial behavior, but never to prosocial behavior. From 2004 to 2008, Marsh conducted neuroimaging, genetic, pharmacologic, and behavioral research in a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). NIMH has supported Marsh's research with a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award and a Richard J. Wyatt Memorial Fellowship, the latter for her neuroimaging research on adolescents with conduct problems As assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University, a Jesuit university dedicated to instructing students to be reflective lifelong learners, responsible and active participants in civic life, and to live generously in service to others, Marsh teaches courses such as Empathy, Altruism, & Aggression and Social & Affective Neuroscience. Her work has been published in interdisciplinary journals including Psychological Science, PLoS ONE, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, The American Journal of Psychiatry, Psychopharmacology, and Emotion.

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