PhD Student , Monash University
Exploring the impact of social networks on the developing adolescent brain
Adolescence is a period of significant physical, emotional and social development, and teenage friendships play a big role in that. Teenagers’ brains are still growing and developing at this time, as brain systems that process social information and emotions are still maturing. The interaction between the social environment and developing brain can have important implications for youth mental health.
For my PhD, I asked 250 high school students to tell me who their friends are, and how close they are to each friend. I use this information to create a map of the school "social network", including all the friendships and connections in the year level. A number of these students then complete an MRI brain scan, where I take scans of the structure, function and neural connectivity of their brains, and compare this to their position within their school social network. From here, I can analyse the patterns of brain activity between socially connected students to determine whether friends have more similar brains than non-friends. Once I have created a brain profile of each student and compared it to those of their friends, I may be able to tell if there is something about a teenager’s brain that makes it more or less likely that two individuals will become friends. Hopefully by better understanding what drives teenage friendships, we can provide health and educational support to promote social connectedness and better mental health outcomes for teenagers.
Abstract: Social relationships promote health and wellbeing. Brain regions regulating social behavior continue to develop throughout adolescence, as teens learn to navigate their social environment with increasing sophistication. Adolescence is also a time of increased risk for the development of psychiatric disorders, many of which are characteristically associated with social dysfunction. In this review, we consider the links between adolescent brain development and the broader social environment. We examine evidence that individual differences in social ability, partly determined by genetic influences on brain structure and function, impact the quality and quantity of social ties during adolescence and that, conversely, the structure of one's social network exerts complex yet profound influences on individual behavior and mental health. In this way, the brain and social environment sculpt each other throughout the teenage years to influence one's social standing amongst peers. Reciprocal interactions between brain maturation and the social environment at this critical developmental stage may augment risk or promote resilience for mental illness and other health outcomes.
Pub.: 17 May '17, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: The etiology of depression has long been thought to include social environmental factors. To quantitatively explore the novel possibility of person-to-person spread and network-level determination of depressive symptoms, analyses were performed on a densely interconnected social network of 12,067 people assessed repeatedly over 32 years as part of the Framingham Heart Study. Longitudinal statistical models were used to examine whether depressive symptoms in one person were associated with similar scores in friends, co-workers, siblings, spouses and neighbors. Depressive symptoms were assessed using CES-D scores that were available for subjects in three waves measured between 1983 and 2001. Results showed both low and high CES-D scores (and classification as being depressed) in a given period were strongly correlated with such scores in one's friends and neighbors. This association extended up to three degrees of separation (to one's friends' friends' friends). Female friends appear to be especially influential in the spread of depression from one person to another. The results are robust to multiple network simulation and estimation methods, suggesting that network phenomena appear relevant to the epidemiology of depression and would benefit from further study.
Pub.: 17 Mar '10, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: The discrepancy between an individual's loneliness and the number of connections in a social network is well documented, yet little is known about the placement of loneliness within, or the spread of loneliness through, social networks. The authors use network linkage data from the population-based Framingham Heart Study to trace the topography of loneliness in people's social networks and the path through which loneliness spreads through these networks. Results indicated that loneliness occurs in clusters, extends up to 3 degrees of separation, is disproportionately represented at the periphery of social networks, and spreads through a contagious process. The spread of loneliness was found to be stronger than the spread of perceived social connections, stronger for friends than family members, and stronger for women than for men. The results advance understanding of the broad social forces that drive loneliness and suggest that efforts to reduce loneliness in society may benefit by aggressively targeting the people in the periphery to help repair their social networks and to create a protective barrier against loneliness that can keep the whole network from unraveling.
Pub.: 09 Dec '09, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: Social networks exhibit strikingly systematic patterns across a wide range of human contexts. Although genetic variation accounts for a significant portion of the variation in many complex social behaviors, the heritability of egocentric social network attributes is unknown. Here, we show that 3 of these attributes (in-degree, transitivity, and centrality) are heritable. We then develop a "mirror network" method to test extant network models and show that none account for observed genetic variation in human social networks. We propose an alternative "Attract and Introduce" model with two simple forms of heterogeneity that generates significant heritability and other important network features. We show that the model is well suited to real social networks in humans. These results suggest that natural selection may have played a role in the evolution of social networks. They also suggest that modeling intrinsic variation in network attributes may be important for understanding the way genes affect human behaviors and the way these behaviors spread from person to person.
Pub.: 28 Jan '09, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: Troubled sleep is a commonly cited consequence of adolescent drug use, but it has rarely been studied as a cause. Nor have there been any studies of the extent to which sleep behavior can spread in social networks from person to person to person. Here we map the social networks of 8,349 adolescents in order to study how sleep behavior spreads, how drug use behavior spreads, and how a friend's sleep behavior influences one's own drug use. We find clusters of poor sleep behavior and drug use that extend up to four degrees of separation (to one's friends' friends' friends' friends) in the social network. Prospective regression models show that being central in the network negatively influences future sleep outcomes, but not vice versa. Moreover, if a friend sleeps </=7 hours, it increases the likelihood a person sleeps < or =7 hours by 11%. If a friend uses marijuana, it increases the likelihood of marijuana use by 110%. Finally, the likelihood that an individual uses drugs increases by 19% when a friend sleeps < or =7 hours, and a mediation analysis shows that 20% of this effect results from the spread of sleep behavior from one person to another. This is the first study to suggest that the spread of one behavior in social networks influences the spread of another. The results indicate that interventions should focus on healthy sleep to prevent drug use and targeting specific individuals may improve outcomes across the entire social network.
Pub.: 25 Mar '10, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: We found that amygdala volume correlates with the size and complexity of social networks in adult humans. An exploratory analysis of subcortical structures did not find strong evidence for similar relationships with any other structure, but there were associations between social network variables and cortical thickness in three cortical areas, two of them with amygdala connectivity. These findings indicate that the amygdala is important in social behavior.
Pub.: 28 Dec '10, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: Using resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging data from two independent samples of healthy adults, we parsed the amygdala's intrinsic connectivity into three partially distinct large-scale networks that strongly resemble the known anatomical organization of amygdala connectivity in rodents and monkeys. Moreover, in a third independent sample, we discovered that people who fostered and maintained larger and more complex social networks not only had larger amygdala volumes, but also amygdalae with stronger intrinsic connectivity within two of these networks: one putatively subserving perceptual abilities and one subserving affiliative behaviors. Our findings were anatomically specific to amygdalar circuitry in that individual differences in social network size and complexity could not be explained by the strength of intrinsic connectivity between nodes within two networks that do not typically involve the amygdala (i.e., the mentalizing and mirror networks), and were behaviorally specific in that amygdala connectivity did not correlate with other self-report measures of sociality.
Pub.: 19 Oct '12, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: The social brain hypothesis has suggested that natural social network sizes may have a characteristic size in humans. This is determined in part by cognitive constraints and in part by the time costs of servicing relationships. Online social networking offers the potential to break through the glass ceiling imposed by at least the second of these, potentially enabling us to maintain much larger social networks. This is tested using two separate UK surveys, each randomly stratified by age, gender and regional population size. The data show that the size and range of online egocentric social networks, indexed as the number of Facebook friends, is similar to that of offline face-to-face networks. For one sample, respondents also specified the number of individuals in the inner layers of their network (formally identified as support clique and sympathy group), and these were also similar in size to those observed in offline networks. This suggests that, as originally proposed by the social brain hypothesis, there is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome. In practical terms, it may reflect the fact that real (as opposed to casual) relationships require at least occasional face-to-face interaction to maintain them.
Pub.: 26 Feb '16, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: Forming secure friendship attachments during adolescence are important for mental health; few, however, have specifically examined the ways in which the transitions in attachment during adolescence may influence future mental health outcomes among African Americans.The present study examines how transitions in attachment in adolescence predicted changes in depression symptoms from late adolescents through adulthood in an African-American sample. We used growth curve modeling to examine the association between transitions in friendship attachment and changes in depression symptoms in adulthood.At age 16 years, 346 (64.0%) adolescents reported secure attachment with 195 (36.0%) reporting either avoidant or resistant attachment. At age 17 years, 340 (62.9%) reported secure attachment and 201 (37.2%) reported avoidant or resistant attachment. The largest percentage of participants (46.2%) reported stable-secure attachment across the two time points. Results of the growth model indicated that adolescents who reported a stable-secure attachment style had lower levels of depression symptoms during adulthood than those individuals who transitioned from secure-to-insecure, from insecure-to-secure, or were in the stable-insecure group. Interestingly enough, individuals in both the attachment transition groups had a faster declining rate of depression symptoms over time compared to the two stability groups.Data support existing research showing an association between transitions in attachment during adolescence and depression through adulthood. Furthermore, these study findings suggest there may be protective features associated with transitioning between attachment styles during adolescence on later depression, compared to African Americans who remain stable in their attachment style.
Pub.: 24 Feb '16, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: Adolescence is a key time period for the emergence of psychosocial and mental health difficulties. To promote adolescent adaptive ('resilient') psychosocial functioning (PSF), appropriate conceptualisation and quantification of such functioning and its predictors is a crucial first step. Here, we quantify resilient functioning as the degree to which an individual functions better or worse than expected given their self-reported childhood family experiences, and relate this to adolescent family and friendship support.We used Principal Component and regression analyses to investigate the relationship between childhood family experiences and PSF (psychiatric symptomatology, personality traits and mental wellbeing) in healthy adolescents (the Neuroscience in Psychiatry Network; N = 2389; ages 14-24). Residuals from the relation between childhood family experiences and PSF reflect resilient functioning; the degree to which an individual is functioning better, or worse, than expected given their childhood family experiences. Next, we relate family and friendship support with resilient functioning both cross-sectionally and 1 year later.Friendship and family support were positive predictors of immediate resilient PSF, with friendship support being the strongest predictor. However, whereas friendship support was a significant positive predictor of later resilient functioning, family support had a negative relationship with later resilient PSF.We show that friendship support, but not family support, is an important positive predictor of both immediate and later resilient PSF in adolescence and early adulthood. Interventions that promote the skills needed to acquire and sustain adolescent friendships may be crucial in increasing adolescent resilient PSF.
Pub.: 12 Apr '17, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: How are social interaction dynamics associated with mental health during early stages of adolescence? The goal of this study is to objectively measure social interactions and evaluate the roles that multiple aspects of the social environment--such as physical activity and food choice--may jointly play in shaping the structure of children's relationships and their mental health. The data in this study are drawn from a longitudinal network-behavior study conducted in 2012 at a private K-8 school in an urban setting in California. We recruited a highly complete network sample of sixth-graders (n = 40, 91% of grade, mean age = 12.3), and examined how two measures of distressed mental health (self-esteem and depressive symptoms) are positionally distributed in an early adolescent interaction network. We ascertained how distressed mental health shapes the structure of relationships over a three-month period, adjusting for relevant dimensions of the social environment. Cross-sectional analyses of interaction networks revealed that self-esteem and depressive symptoms are differentially stratified by gender. Specifically, girls with more depressive symptoms have interactions consistent with social inhibition, while boys' interactions suggest robustness to depressive symptoms. Girls higher in self-esteem tended towards greater sociability. Longitudinal network behavior models indicate that gender similarity and perceived popularity are influential in the formation of social ties. Greater school connectedness predicts the development of self-esteem, though social ties contribute to more self-esteem improvement among students who identify as European-American. Cross-sectional evidence shows associations between distressed mental health and students' network peers. However, there is no evidence that connected students' mental health status becomes more similar in their over time because of their network interactions. These findings suggest that mental health during early adolescence may be less subject to mechanisms of social influence than network research in even slightly older adolescents currently indicates.
Pub.: 07 May '14, Pinned: 31 Jul '17
Abstract: Although we know the transition from childhood to adulthood is marked by important social and neural development, little is known about how social network size might affect neurocognitive development or vice versa. Neuroimaging research has identified several brain regions, such as the amygdala, as key to this affiliative behavior. However, white matter connectivity among these regions, and its behavioral correlates, remain unclear. Here we tested two hypotheses: that an amygdalocentric structural white matter network governs social affiliative behavior and that this network changes during adolescence and young adulthood. We measured social network size behaviorally, and white matter microstructure using probabilistic diffusion tensor imaging in a sample of neurologically normal adolescents and young adults. Our results suggest amygdala white matter microstructure is key to understanding individual differences in social network size, with connectivity to other social brain regions such as the orbitofrontal cortex and anterior temporal lobe predicting much variation. In addition, participant age correlated with both network size and white matter variation in this network. These findings suggest the transition to adulthood may constitute a critical period for the optimization of structural brain networks underlying affiliative behavior.
Pub.: 13 Jan '16, Pinned: 31 Jul '17