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August 2007
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Brain Imaging Reveals Joys of Giving

The old saying “It’s better to give than to receive” may be truer than you think.  A new study suggests that pleasure-related areas in the brain get more active when people decide to donate money to charity.  The findings may help explain why some people contribute to the public good, even at a personal cost.

Researchers gave 19 women an online account with $100.  The women were told they could keep whatever money remained at the end of the session.  They then watched as a computer screen displayed a series of possible money transfers from their accounts to a local food bank.  Meanwhile, their brains were scanned with an imaging machine.  The scans showed when specific brain regions were activated.

About half of the proposed transfers were voluntary—the women could decide whether to accept or reject the donation.  Sometimes the transfers were required, similar to a tax.  Occasionally, money was unexpectedly added or taken away from either the woman’s or the charity’s account. 

The results showed that 3 very different situations—receiving money, seeing money go to a good cause or deciding to donate money—all activated similar pleasure-related centers deep in the brain.  The response was strongest when people volunteered to donate money.  This might correspond to the “warm glow” some people get when they donate money to a good cause.

Although voluntary giving activated these pleasure-related brain centers, it didn’t create a financial windfall for the food bank.  Participants rejected more than half of the voluntary transfers.  Overall, the charity received 10% less money from voluntary donations than from the tax-like mandatory contributions.

  Alcoholism Subtypes Identified

Why do some alcoholics benefit from medications or counseling while others don’t?  That question has been a major challenge for scientists who study alcohol disorders.  A new analysis of people with alcohol dependence has found 5 distinct subtypes of alcoholism.

NIH scientists studied nearly 1,500 people with alcohol dependence.  They analyzed their family history of alcoholism, the age when alcohol use became a problem and other factors.

The largest alcoholism subtype, they found, includes about 31% of U.S. alcoholics.  This group is made up of young adults who rarely seek help for their drinking.  They have relatively low rates of other substance abuse or mental disorders and a low rate of family alcoholism.

The next largest subtype includes about 21% of U.S. alcoholics.  More than half come from families with alcoholism.  About half have an antisocial personality disorder.  Most smoke cigarettes and marijuana.  Many also have cocaine and opiate addictions.  More than a third seek help for their drinking.  The researchers also defined 3 other subtypes.

“Nearly 20% of alcoholics are highly functional and well-educated with good incomes,” says Dr. Howard B. Moss, a scientist with NIH’s National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.  “Our findings should help dispel the popular notion of the ‘typical alcoholic.’”

Understanding the subtypes of alcoholism will now help researchers to develop more effective prevention and treatment strategies.

Definitions iconDefinition

Drinking alcohol at a level that interferes with your physical and mental health and your responsibilities to friends, family and the workplace.

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