Prosocial behavior and empathy are important aspects of developing social relations in childhood. Prior studies showed protracted structural development of social brain regions associated with prosocial behavior. However, it remains unknown how structure of the social brain is influenced by genetic or environmental factors, and whether overlapping heritability factors explain covariance in structure of the social brain and behavior. The current study examined this hypothesis in a twin sample (aged 7–9-year; N = 512). Bilateral measures of surface area and cortical thickness of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), and precuneus were analyzed. Results showed genetic contributions to surface area and cortical thickness for all brain regions. We found additional shared environmental influences for TPJ, suggesting that this region might be relatively more sensitive to social experiences. Genetic factors also influenced parent-reported prosocial behavior (A = 45%) and empathy (A = 59%). We provided initial evidence that the precuneus shares genetically determined variance with empathy, suggesting a possible small genetic overlap (9%) in brain structure and empathy. These findings show that structure of the social brain and empathy are driven by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, with some factors overlapping for brain structure and behavior.

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Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience
Department of Psychology

van der Meulen, M. (Mara), Wierenga, L.M. (Lara M.), Achterberg, M. (Michelle), Drenth, N. (Nadieh), van IJzendoorn, M.H, & Crone, E.A. (2020). Genetic and environmental influences on structure of the social brain in childhood. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2020.100782