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Dartmouth study finds self-esteem related to brain connections

HANOVER — A new Dartmouth College study shows that people’s levels of self-esteem are related to how regions of their brains connect.

The discovery could ultimately lead to improved treatments for several conditions including depression, eating disorders and anxiety, the researchers say.

The final version of the study was published online this week and is to appear in an upcoming edition of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

The Dartmouth researchers found that the connection between the area of the brain dealing with self-knowledge and the area handling reward predicts self-esteem levels. A physically strong and healthy connection corresponds with high self-esteem over the long-term. A well-functioning connection relates with high self-esteem in the moment.

“Very few studies have ever looked at self-esteem from a neurological point of view,” said lead author Robert Chavez, a doctoral student in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “That’s surprising because self-esteem is such an important concept in psychology. People with high self-esteem are less prone to depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and other affective disorders. Our findings could help inform treatments for such conditions down the road.”

Chavez collaborated on the study with Todd Heatherton, the Lincoln Filene Professor in Human Relations at Dartmouth. Together they scanned the brains of 48 people as the people answered questions about how they viewed themselves both at that moment and in general.

They found that people with stronger white matter connections from their medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self-knowledge, to their ventral striatum, which is involved in the sensation of reward, demonstrated high, long-term self-esteem. Though the study establishes brain anatomy as an important factor for determining self-esteems levels, Chavez and Heatherton say other factors are also at work.

“Our results do not imply that you are locked into your self-esteem,” Chavez said. “Beyond brain structure and activity, factors like age, personality, and life circumstances also help determine how people view themselves.”The study suggests brain anatomy may not be as rigid as once thought, Chavez said.

The researchers hope to discover in future studies whether self-esteem enhancement therapies could induce structural changes in the pathways seen in their study.

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