Diversity is Required for Research in Social Cognition and Neuroscience

In this perspective, neuroscientists Sol Fittipaldi and Agustín Ibáñez challenge traditional interpretations of social cognition decline in normal and pathological aging and highlight the significance of diversity-related factors such as education and socioeconomic status.

older people with globe highlighting Latin America

The figure has been designed by Lucas Neufeld (artist), Sol Fittipaldi (Atlantic Fellow), and Agustín Ibáñez (Altantic Fellow, GBHI faculty member and Director of BrainLat—the Latin American Brain Health Institute).

Our Intrinsic Social Nature 

Humans are social beings, but the mental processes that allow us to connect with others are susceptible to heterogeneous influences—or those outside our bodies. 

Social connections feel good and can help us live longer and better. People with more robust social bonds have less chance of suffering from cardiovascular problems, anxiety, depression, and dementia. But to establish and maintain social connections, we must be able to infer how others feel and think and adapt our behavior appropriately. These skills, collectively known as ‘social cognition’, have been the focus of decades of research in psychology and neuroscience. However, we still do not fully understand why some people excel in mastering social cognition skills while others struggle.

Social cognition underlies our capacity to establish and maintain social connections, which makes it critical for brain health and quality of life. Advanced age and dementia negatively impact social cognition through changes in the brain. Our recent work, in collaboration with a multinational team of scientists across Latin America and Europe and published in Nature Mental Health, challenges traditional interpretations. The study showed that age, diagnosis, and brain reserve become less relevant when examining social cognition performance alongside diversity-related factors. 

One factor traditionally associated with poorer social cognition is advanced age. As we age, our brains lose grey matter and change their functional networks. This can reduce our cognitive abilities, like memory, attention, and perspective taking , impacting social cognition. Although these are normal processes, a marked social cognition decline in an older person can signal a brain disease. 

Social cognition deficits are a hallmark of the behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia, a neurodegenerative disease characterized by changes in personality and social behavior. But they can also present in other age-related conditions, like Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment. Thus, researchers and clinicians rely on standardized social cognition tasks to aid in detecting and characterizing brain health problems, facilitating appropriate treatment allocation. 

A significant knowledge gap is how age and diagnosis impact social cognition when considered alongside other diversity-related factors (such as education and socioeconomic disparities) across global settings. Most studies have been performed in high-income countries using homogeneous and advantaged populations, so traditional social cognition models might not generalize well to underrepresented populations that challenge stereotypes. People from low-, middle-, and upper-middle-income countries, such as most in Latin America, are characterized by socioeconomic disparities and disadvantages in other social determinants of health that make them more vulnerable to brain health issues

Top Predictors of Social Cognition in Older Adults and Patients 

To understand this, we investigated the top predictors of social cognition in older adults across a range of factors, including demographics, clinical diagnosis (cognitive impairment and dementia), cognition/executive functions, and structural and functional brain reserve. We assembled a large sample of 1,063 participants between 50 and 98 years from 9 countries across Latin America and Europe to maximize sociodemographic and cultural diversity. Participants were recruited through the ReDLat dementia consortium and other international networks. 

We found that the top predictors of better performance in standardized social cognition tasks were having higher cognitive/executive functions and education. Crucially, these factors were more important than age and diagnosis in explaining performance variability. Other relevant factors in some models included sex, income at the country level (that is, socioeconomic status), and grey matter volume. 

The results challenge traditional interpretations of social cognition decline in aging, the impact of diagnosis on performance, and brain associations of social cognition, emphasizing the significance of heterogeneous factors. This aligns with recent evidence showing that social determinants of health and education substantially affect cognition and functionality more than traditional factors like age and sex in diverse Latin American populations. 

Our findings can inform the development of tailored predictive social cognition models for specific populations. This is important to advance a more ethical understanding of social cognition based on a more inclusive and global approach. Also, our results can inform the refinement of social cognition assessments and interventions by accounting for diversity. More accurate models, assessments, and interventions for social cognition can enhance the translational value of social neuroscience, with the ultimate goal of preventing social isolation and loneliness and improving brain health and quality of life. 

Publication: Heterogeneous factors influence social cognition across diverse settings in brain health and age-related diseases. https://doi.org/10.1038/s44220-023-00164-3