Functional and microstructural plasticity following social and interoceptive mental training

Elife. 2023 Jul 7:12:e85188. doi: 10.7554/eLife.85188.


The human brain supports social cognitive functions, including Theory of Mind, empathy, and compassion, through its intrinsic hierarchical organization. However, it remains unclear how the learning and refinement of social skills shapes brain function and structure. We studied if different types of social mental training induce changes in cortical function and microstructure, investigating 332 healthy adults (197 women, 20-55 years) with repeated multimodal neuroimaging and behavioral testing. Our neuroimaging approach examined longitudinal changes in cortical functional gradients and myelin-sensitive T1 relaxometry, two complementary measures of cortical hierarchical organization. We observed marked changes in intrinsic cortical function and microstructure, which varied as a function of social training content. In particular, cortical function and microstructure changed as a result of attention-mindfulness and socio-cognitive training in regions functionally associated with attention and interoception, including insular and parietal cortices. Conversely, socio-affective and socio-cognitive training resulted in differential microstructural changes in regions classically implicated in interoceptive and emotional processing, including insular and orbitofrontal areas, but did not result in functional reorganization. Notably, longitudinal changes in cortical function and microstructure predicted behavioral change in attention, compassion and perspective-taking. Our work demonstrates functional and microstructural plasticity after the training of social-interoceptive functions, and illustrates the bidirectional relationship between brain organisation and human social skills.

Keywords: brain organization; human; intrinsic function; microstructure; neuroscience; plasticity; social cognition.

Plain language summary

Navigating daily life requires a number of social skills, such as empathy and understanding other people’s thoughts and feelings. Research has found that specific parts of the brain support these abilities in humans. For instance, the brain areas that support compassion are different from the regions involved in understanding other people’s perspective and thoughts. It is unclear how learning and refining social skills alters the brain. Previous studies have shown that learning new motor skills restructures the areas of the brain that regulate movement. Could acquiring and improving social skills have a similar effect? To investigate, Valk et al. trained more than 300 healthy adults in different social skills over the course of three months as part of the ReSource project. The program was designed to enhance abilities in compassion and perspective through mental exercises and working in pairs. Participants were also trained using different approaches to see whether changes to the brain are influenced by how a skill is learnt. The brains of the participants were repeatedly pictured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This revealed that different types of training caused unique changes in specific parts of the brain. For example, teaching mindfulness made parts of the brain less functionally connected, whereas training to understand other people’s thought increased functional connections between various regions. These functional alterations were paralleled by changes in brain structure. They could also predict improvements in social skills which were measured throughout the study using behavioural tests. These findings suggest that training can help to improve social skills even in adults, which may benefit their quality of life through stronger social connections. Better knowledge of how to develop social skills and their biological basis will help to identify people who need support with these interactions and develop new therapies to nurture their abilities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain* / diagnostic imaging
  • Cognition*
  • Emotions
  • Empathy
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning