Decades of research have demonstrated strong links between social ties and health. Although considerable evidence has shown that social support can attenuate downstream physiological stress responses that are relevant to health, the neurocognitive mechanisms that translate perceptions of social ties into altered physiological responses are still not fully understood. This review integrates research from social and affective neuroscience to illuminate some of the neural mechanisms involved in social support processes, which may further our understanding of the ways in which social support influences health. This review focuses on two types of social support that have been shown to relate to health: receiving and giving social support. As the neural basis of receiving support, this article reviews the hypothesis that receiving support may benefit health through the activation of neural regions that respond to safety and inhibit threat-related neural and physiological responding. This article will then review neuroimaging studies in which participants were primed with or received support during a negative experience as well as studies in which self-reports of perceived support were correlated with neural responses to a negative experience. As the neural basis of giving support, this article reviews the hypothesis that neural regions involved in maternal caregiving behavior may be critical for the health benefits of support-giving through the inhibition of threat-related neural and physiological responding. Neuroimaging studies in which participants provided support to others or engaged in other related forms of prosocial behavior will then be reviewed. Implications of these findings for furthering our understanding of the relationships between social support and health are discussed.
From the Department of Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, and Clinical Research Directorate/CMRP, SAIC-Frederick, Inc., Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, Frederick, MD 21702.
Address correspondence and reprint requests to Naomi I. Eisenberger, PhD, UCLA Psych-Soc, Box 951563, 4444 Franz Hall, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Received for publication November 9, 2012; revision received February 19, 2013.