Relational aggression such as social rejection is common within school peer groups. Converging evidence suggests that adolescent females are particularly sensitive to social rejection. We used a novel fMRI adaptation of the Cyberball social rejection paradigm to investigate the neural response to social rejection in 19 mid-adolescent (aged 14-16) and 16 adult female participants. Across all participants, social exclusion (relative to inclusion) elicited a response in bilateral medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) extending into ventral and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex; and the left ventrolateral PFC (vlPFC); regions that have been associated in previous studies with social evaluation, negative affective processing, and affect regulation respectively. However, the exclusion-related response in right vlPFC, a region associated in previous studies with the regulation of rejection-related distress, was attenuated in adolescents. Within mPFC, greater activation during exclusion vs. inclusion was associated with greater self-reported susceptibility to peer influence in adolescents but not in adults. This suggests that the brain's response to experimentally-induced social rejection relates to adolescent behaviour in real-world social interactions. We speculate about the potential implications of these findings for educational settings. In particular, functional development of affective circuitry during adolescence may influence social interaction within the school peer group.
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