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Neurocomputational mechanisms underpinning aberrant social learning in young adults with low self-esteem

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Moutoussis, Michael  ORCID logo
Womack, Palee M. 
Bullmore, Edward T. 


Abstract: Low self-esteem is a risk factor for a range of psychiatric disorders. From a cognitive perspective a negative self-image can be maintained through aberrant learning about self-worth derived from social feedback. We previously showed that neural teaching signals that represent the difference between expected and actual social feedback (i.e., social prediction errors) drive fluctuations in self-worth. Here, we used model-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to characterize learning from social prediction errors in 61 participants drawn from a population-based sample (n = 2402) who were recruited on the basis of being in the bottom or top 10% of self-esteem scores. Participants performed a social evaluation task during fMRI scanning, which entailed predicting whether other people liked them as well as the repeated provision of reported feelings of self-worth. Computational modeling results showed that low self-esteem participants had persistent expectations that others would dislike them, and a reduced propensity to update these expectations in response to social prediction errors. Low self-esteem subjects also displayed an enhanced volatility in reported feelings of self-worth, and this was linked to an increased tendency for social prediction errors to determine momentary self-worth. Canonical correlation analysis revealed that individual differences in self-esteem related to several interconnected psychiatric symptoms organized around a single dimension of interpersonal vulnerability. Such interpersonal vulnerability was associated with an attenuated social value signal in ventromedial prefrontal cortex when making predictions about being liked, and enhanced dorsal prefrontal cortex activity upon receipt of social feedback. We suggest these computational signatures of low self-esteem and their associated neural underpinnings might represent vulnerability for development of psychiatric disorder.




Article, /631/378, /631/477, /59/36, article

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Translational Psychiatry

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Nature Publishing Group UK
EC | Horizon 2020 Framework Programme (EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation H2020) (707404)
Wellcome Trust (Wellcome) (095844/Z/11/Z, 095844/Z/11/Z)
DH | National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) (NF-SI-0514-10157)
RCUK | Medical Research Council (MRC) (MR/N02401X/1)