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Imaging study shows how humor activates kids’ brain regions

Article / Review by on January 31, 2012 – 6:42 pmNo Comments

Stanford/Packard imaging study shows how humor activates kids’ brain regions

Making kids laugh for science: Study shows how humor activates children’s brains

For the first time, researchers have scanned the brains of children watching funny videos to examine which of their brain regions are active as their sense of humor develops. The new findings from the Stanford University School of Medicine show that some parts of the brain network that respond to humor in adults already exist in 6- to 12-year-olds, though the neural circuits become more sophisticated as kids grow.

The researchers hope the work will provide a base for understanding how positive emotions, such as a sense of humor, could affect a child’s well-being.

“Humor is a very important component of emotional health, maintaining relationships, developing cognitive function and perhaps even medical health,” said Allan Reiss, MD, who directs the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford. Reiss is the senior author of a study describing the new findings, published Feb. 1 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

As an important component of positive emotion, a strong sense of humor may help children to be more resilient, added Reiss, who is also a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, of radiology and of pediatrics at Stanford and at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. “In particular, we think a balanced and consistent sense of humor may help children negotiate the difficult period of pre-adolescence and adolescence,” he said.

To study kids’ responses to humor, the research team analyzed brain scans collected while 15 children, aged 6 to 12, watched short video clips while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, scanner. The children were of at least average intelligence and did not have any psychiatric or developmental problems. The videos, which had been evaluated by other kids, fell into three categories: funny, positive and neutral. The “funny” videos, mostly taken from the TV program “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” were both funny and rewarding to watch. The “positive” videos were rewarding to watch but not funny. The “neutral” videos were neither rewarding nor funny. All of the videos could be understood without sophisticated language or reading skills.

“It was great fun to plan the study, though we couldn’t just find movie clips that we, the investigators, found funny — our sense of humor is not the same as a 9-year-old’s,” said Reiss. “So we had a separate group of kids rate the clips before we undertook the study.”

The study’s results showed that funny videos activated two regions of children’s brains — regions that are also activated in adults who are viewing humorous material. While watching funny videos, children had high activity at the temporal-occipital-parietal junction, a brain area that processes perceived incongruities. Unlike in adults, this region was activated on both sides of the children’s brains; in previous studies of adults responding to cartoon humor, activation was confined to the left side of the brain.

“Our new finding suggests that the network that responds to humorous stimuli in adults is already present in kids but is not as well-developed,” Reiss said.

Children, like adults, also responded to humor with activation in the brain’s mesolimbic regions, which process rewards. Reward-processing areas were more strongly activated in younger children than older kids, which might mean the response of the reward circuitry becomes more sophisticated as children mature; it also could suggest that the funny videos used in this study were more age-appropriate (and more rewarding) for younger kids, the researchers said.

The positive videos activated the reward-processing areas but not the parts of the brain that process incongruity. This result supports prior research in adults that suggests incongruity — a surprise for the brain — is a key part of making something funny.

The researchers plan to expand on their findings by conducting studies to examine if brain circuits underlying humor in boys and girls develop differently, and to learn how a sense of humor is tied to a child’s overall mental health and resilience.

For example, Reiss said, a better-developed sense of humor might help to protect a child against depression. But positive emotional states, such as the humor response, have scarcely been studied in kids, he added.

“Negative emotional states such as depression or anxiety are compelling to study, but you can’t completely understand why a child has emotional stability or instability until you look at both sides of the coin,” he said. “This work is setting the stage for helping us look at how humor predicts resilience and well-being.”

Reiss’ team included the study’s first author, Michelle Neely, who was an undergraduate researcher at Stanford when the study was conducted and is now a medical student at Cornell; and postdoctoral scholars Elizabeth Walter, PhD, and Jessica Black, PhD, who is now a member of the faculty of Boston College.

The research was funded by grants from the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health; the Spectrum Child Health Research Institute, of which Reiss is a member; a Bette and Al Moorman Young Investigator Award; an NIH-sponsored institutional research training grant; and a grant from the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford University.

By Erin Digitale Stanford University Medical Center


Allan Reiss, MD profile.

Brain researcher Allan Reiss, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Research at Stanford University, probes the underlying physiological causes of mental illness and seeks better ways to diagnose and possibly prevent them.


Allan Reiss, MD. Bio.

Allan Reiss, MD.

Allan L. Reiss Professor, Psychiatry & Behavioral Science – Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research Member, Child Health Research Institute Professor, Radiology

Interdisciplinary Brain Science Research 401 Quarry Rd MC 5795 Stanford, CA 94305

> Clinical Focus Psychiatry Psychiatry, Child and Adolescent Neurodevelopmental and neurogenetic disorders

> Administrative Appointments Vice Chair, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (2011 – present) Director, Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research (1997 – present) Associate Chair, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences (2002 – 2011) Director, Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1997 – 2005)

> Honors and Awards Institute of Medicine, National Academies of Science (2009) Ruane Prize, NARSAD (2005) George Tarjan Award, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2005) Alpha Omega Alpha, George Washington University School of Medicine (1981) Phi Beta Kappa, Swarthmore College (1977) Spirit of Excellence Award for Lifetime Achievements, National Fragile X Foundation (2004) Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award, George Washington University School of Medicine (1998) B.A. “with Distinction”, Swarthmore College (1977) Merck Academic Achievement Award, George Washington University School of Medicine (1981) Travel Award, American College of Neuropsychopharmacology (1988) Faculty Teaching Award, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Division of Child Psychiatry (1990) Clinician Scientist Award, Johns Hopkins University Shcool of Medicine (1987)

> Professional Education Board Certification: Psychiatry, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (1987) Board Certification: Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology (1988) Residency: SUMC – Graduate Medical Education CA (1986) Residency: Children’s Hospital National Medical Center DC (1984) Internship: Univ Of CO Health Science Center CO (1982) Medical Education: George Washington University D.C. (1981) B.A., Swarthmore College Psychobioogy (1977) M.D., Geroge Washington University Medicine (1981)

> Graduate & Fellowship Program Affiliations Neurology and Neurol Sciences Neurosciences Psychiatry and Behavioral Science Pediatrics Molecular and Genetic Medicine

> Current Research Interests

Allan L. Reiss, M.D. is the Howard C. Robbins Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research (CIBSR) at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Reiss uses advanced research methods and tools such as neuroimaging, genetic analyses and neurobehavioral assessment to focus on neurodevelopmental and neurogenetic disorders of childhood onset. In particular, he studies how genetic and environmental factors affect brain structure and function, and how this ultimately impacts the development and function of persons with these disorders. Dr. Reiss has worked extensively with individuals affected by neurogenetic disorders that increase risk for serious psychopathology including fragile X syndrome, Turner syndrome, Williams syndrome and velocardiofacial syndrome. A particularly important focus of this work is identifying gene-brain-behavior interactions that have relevance to the development of more specific and effective interventions.

A second major research focus of the CIBSR is on the neuroscience of human resilience. Work in this area includes studies of the brain basis of humor and territorial behavior. These studies are carried out in typically developing children and adults and are designed to advance our understanding of both biological and environmental influences on the development of human resilience.

Dr. Reiss’ laboratory and key collaborations serve as a model for interdisciplinary brain sciences collaboration. Research in the laboratory is carried out, or facilitated by faculty and staff from numerous fields including psychiatry, neurology, psychology, neuroscience, genetics, radiology, computer science, special education and statistics. The CIBSR is dedicated to the concept that direct interaction among individuals from these multiple disciplines will serve as the engine for substantive progress in our field.


Photo by wolleydog


* Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and patient care at its three institutions – Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.

**  The above story is adapted from materials provided by Stanford University School of Medicine


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