Brain signatures of moral sensitivity in adolescents with early social deprivation

Sci Rep. 2014 Jun 19;4:5354. doi: 10.1038/srep05354.


The present study examined neural responses associated with moral sensitivity in adolescents with a background of early social deprivation. Using high-density electroencephalography (hdEEG), brain activity was measured during an intentional inference task, which assesses rapid moral decision-making regarding intentional or unintentional harm to people and objects. We compared the responses to this task in a socially deprived group (DG) with that of a control group (CG). The event-related potentials (ERPs) results showed atypical early and late frontal cortical markers associated with attribution of intentionality during moral decision-making in DG (especially regarding intentional harm to people). The source space of the hdEEG showed reduced activity for DG compared with CG in the right prefrontal cortex, bilaterally in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), and right insula. Moreover, the reduced response in vmPFC for DG was predicted by higher rates of externalizing problems. These findings demonstrate the importance of the social environment in early moral development, supporting a prefrontal maturation model of social deprivation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adoption / psychology
  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Child
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Social Environment
  • Social Perception*
  • Socioeconomic Factors