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June 22nd, 2010
05:58 PM ET

Personality shows up in brain structure

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN.com Health Writer/Producer

Some people are more outgoing than shy, or worrisome than carefree. Such personality differences are now being explored biologically in the brain.

A new study in the journal Psychological Science finds that several personality traits are associated with definite brain regions. Scientists from the University of Minnesota, University of Toronto, Yale University, and The Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico, collaborated on the study.

Participants were 116 people, half of whom were male, and all between 18 and 40 years old. They were given a personality test and then underwent magnetic resonance imaging.

The researchers found evidence in the brain for four of the "Big Five personality traits": extroversion,
neuroticism, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. They looked at the volumes of various brain regions to see how greater or smaller volumes might be connected to personality traits. But they did not find clear associations for the fifth trait: openness/intellect.

A brain region involved in processing reward information, called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, seemed to be associated with how extroverted participants were. Extroverted people tend to be more sociable and talkative.

Brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative affect seemed to have something to do with how neurotic participants were. Neuroticism includes elements of irritability, anxiety, and being self-conscious.

Brain areas dealing with information about the intentions and mental states of other people were associated with agreeableness. Cooperation, compassion and politeness are part of agreeableness.

The lateral prefrontal cortex, involved in planning and the voluntary control of behavior, seemed to be associated with conscientiousness. People who are highly conscientious tend to be self-disciplined and orderly, rather than impulsive.

The one major personality trait that did not have an association with a brain area volume in this study was openness/intellect, which includes people who are creative, philosophical, imaginative, and intellectually engaged. This is also the only trait that has been associated with intelligence in previous research. Further study would be needed to determine how biology might be related to this trait.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.