This functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) study examined subjective and neural responses to social exclusion in adolescents (age 12-15) who either had a stable accepted (n = 27; 14 males) or a chronic rejected (n = 19; 12 males) status among peers from age 6 to 12. Both groups of adolescents reported similar increases in distress after being excluded in a virtual ball-tossing game (Cyberball), but adolescents with a history of chronic peer rejection showed higher activity in brain regions previously linked to the detection of, and the distress caused by, social exclusion. Specifically, compared with stably accepted adolescents, chronically rejected adolescents displayed: 1) higher activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) during social exclusion and 2) higher activity in the dACC and anterior prefrontal cortex when they were incidentally excluded in a social interaction in which they were overall included. These findings demonstrate that chronic childhood peer rejection is associated with heightened neural responses to social exclusion during adolescence, which has implications for understanding the processes through which peer rejection may lead to adverse effects on mental health over time.
Keywords: Anterior cingulate cortex; Cyberball; Ostracism; Peer relations; Peer status; fMRI.