Reward-related neural responses are dependent on the beneficiary

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Prior studies have suggested that positive social interactions are experienced as rewarding. Yet, it is not well understood how social relationships influence neural responses to other persons’ gains. In this study, we investigated neural responses during a gambling task in which healthy participants (N = 31; 18 females) could win or lose money for themselves, their best friend or a disliked other (antagonist). At the moment of receiving outcome, person-related activity was observed in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), precuneus and temporal parietal junction (TPJ), showing higher activity for friends and antagonists than for self, and this activity was independent of outcome. The only region showing an interaction between the person-participants played for and outcome was the ventral striatum. Specifically, the striatum was more active following gains than losses for self and friends, whereas for the antagonist this pattern was reversed. Together, these results show that, in a context with social and reward information, social aspects are processed in brain regions associated with social cognition (mPFC, TPJ), and reward aspects are processed in primary reward areas (striatum). Furthermore, there is an interaction of social and reward information in the striatum, such that reward-related activity was dependent on social relationship.

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