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Column: We can't ignore society's role in brain health

Social neuroscience is an emerging field that uses both biology and psychology to investigate human diseases and disorders.

The term social neuroscience first appeared in scientific writing in 1988.

While Aristotle observed that man is by nature a social animal, scientists studying the brain were slow to acknowledge that social factors are important to the basic structure and function of the brain.

Today, scientists are working in interdisciplinary teams to conduct and interpret research pertaining to brain function and health.

Dr. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, a recognized leader in the field of social neuroscience, has described the need to integrate biology and the social sciences as "compelling." The establishment of principles of social neuroscience is already expanding our understanding of the physiological ramifications of social world's impact upon our health and life span.

This recognition within the scientific community that brain functioning can no longer be understood strictly on a biological level is becoming widespread. Because the central nervous system moderates so many physiological responses in human beings, the impact of social/interpersonal events upon the central nervous system is now acknowledged to directly affect our physiological health.

The underlying tenet of social neuroscience is simply this: social factors have a critical impact upon brain and biological functioning.

@Sub heads:Addictions

@Normal1: Substance abuse disorders are clear examples of the type of disease/disorder that are being studied with a social neurological methodology.

Addiction has been understood to involve both genetic factors plus observable personality traits. But studies have now shown that ethnic/cultural backgrounds must also be identified.

The work being done to explain vulnerability to drug addiction and the factors that influence the progression from drug use to drug addiction is highly complex because of the number of identified variants in determining the causes of addiction.

But the social costs of drug and alcohol addiction in the U.S. are so enormous that the research challenges in factoring the wide spectrum of identified variants have not deterred scientific study.

We know that addiction is a complex disorder with interacting factors.

In a 2005 article in Nature Neuroscience, researchers reported that a genetic predisposition to alcohol or drug addiction may still in part be conditional to environmental determinants. Some of these social contexts that can influence the development of alcohol dependence in people with a high genetic risk include the family, but also include the non-family social environment.

@sub heads:Local response

@Normal1: The Chemical Health Initiative of Goodhue County is a prevention organization working in local communities to help existing social structures support and promote chemical health. Because social neuroscience affirms the critical impact of social interaction and social environment upon our physical health and wellbeing, the mission of the CHI focuses on embedding chemical health practices and policies within our social institutions.

Citizens in Red Wing, Zumbrota, Goodhue, Cannon Falls, Kenyon and Wanamingo are implementing research-based programs and practices into their schools, churches, civic organizations, youth groups, law enforcement, recreation and business sectors.

Social neuroscience supports and encourages the recognition that communities can prevent the scourge of addition disorders by paying attention to the family and non-family social environments where we live. The CHI believes that we can create community environments that support healthy living and decrease the incidence of substance use disorders among the population of Goodhue County.

If you are interested in participating in this long-term, researched-based work for healthy kids, families and communities, please contact the CHI Director Julie Hatch at