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Imagine the last time you interviewed for a job you really wanted. You may recall some serious bodily changes happening during the interview; sweaty palms, racing heart, pounding pulse. What were you thinking about during the interview? Were you especially attuned to the way the interviewer looked as she or he listened to your answers to their questions? Afterward, did you replay the interview over and over in your mind, trying to make sense of every smile and eyebrow raise, rethinking your answers to the questions? Did you feel totally exhausted, maybe even a little achy and sensitive to pain?

These are examples of some of the psychological and physiological responses being studied in Dr. Keely Muscatell’s Social Neuroscience and Health Lab at Carolina. Dr. Muscatell is interested in how stressful experiences (like being social evaluated in a job interview) are processed by the brain and translated into bodily changes that can impact our physical health. To examine neural responses during stress, Her laboratory utilizes functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to get a window into what the brain is doing during a stressful experience. The laboratory also measures physiological processes, especially a type of immune system activation called inflammation, which has important implications for the development of chronic diseases and psychological disorders.

In addition to studying acute stressors (like social evaluation), Dr. Muscatell is also investigating how more chronic forms of stress impact the brain and body. For example, her research has found that adults who perceive themselves as occupying a lower position on the social ladder and adolescents from households with lower income and parental education levels are more likely to activate a brain region called the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC) during social exchanges. The DMPFC plays an important role in mentalizing, or trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, so these data suggest that lower-status individuals may be more attuned to others during social interactions. While this may be an important skill that helps navigate the social world more smoothly, during a stressful experience, paying a lot of attention to what others are thinking and feeling could have negative side effects. She is currently following-up on these findings to investigate how economic inequality may impact neural responses to social threat and decision-making.

More recently, Dr. Muscatell is investigating how surviving breast cancer, undoubtedly an incredibly stressful life event, impacts neural responses to threating information and levels of inflammation. One of her studies in this domain revealed that breast cancer survivors who had high levels of social support from friends and family responded with less neural activity in the amygdala (a key threat-related brain structure) and had lower levels of inflammation, pointing to the pivotal role social relationships play in contributing to our health. Finally, her laboratory is currently working on a project focused on understanding how social feedback is processed across the racial divide. How does our brain react to negative feedback if the person providing it is from a different racial group than us? What about positive feedback?

Overall, research in the Social Neuroscience and Health lab is focused on understanding how social experiences “get under the skin” to impact our health and well-being. Dr. Muscatell and her laboratory members take a multi-disciplinary approach to investigating these issues, utilizing theory and methods from social and health psychology, neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, and pharmacology. They hope that by understanding the mechanisms linking social processes and health, we can help to ameliorate racial and socioeconomic disparities in health outcomes, and make sure everyone has the chance to live a health and happy life regardless of their skin color or economic background.

Dr. Muscatell is an Assistant Professor in the Social Psychology Program within the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill. She also has an appointment in the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. Learn more about the Social Neuroscience and Health Lab.

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