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Research by Georgetown Alumna, Professor Shows Kidney Donors’ Brains Are Different

October 29, 2018 – Georgetown alumna Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz (G’16) is first author on a paper with psychology professor Abigail Marsh that for the first time shows that people who donate kidneys to strangers exhibit enhanced empathy on a neural level with strangers. The paper, recently published in Psychological Science, is a continuation of research she conducted with Marsh as a Ph.D. candidate.

Current role: Postdoctoral fellow, psychology department, University of Pennsylvania

Degrees: Ph.D. in psychology, Georgetown, 2016; bachelor’s in biopsychology, Tufts University, 2009

Hometown: Farmingville, New York

Published research: The Psychological Science study published this past August involved scanning the brains of kidney donors and non-donors, while they watched strangers in distress and also experienced distress themselves.

“When kidney donors watch a stranger either experiencing pain or anticipating pain, their brains exhibit activity as if they are experiencing pain or fear themselves,” Brethel-Haurwitz says. “This may help explain why they are moved to donate their kidney to a stranger.”

Georgetown research: Brethel-Haurwitz conducted research on altruism in Marsh’s Laboratory on Social & Affective Neuroscience while pursuing her Ph.D. She says the professor’s research attracted her to the university’s psychology program.  

“We conducted a series of studies to understand particularly the emotional and social processes that might lead to very altruistic and empathic behavior,” the alumna explains.

The alumna says donating a kidney is costly because it is a painful major surgery requiring a significant time commitment, and donors often end up paying hundreds to thousands of dollars to cover costs not covered by health insurance.

“This behavior is one of the best definitions of altruism – highly costly behavior to help another person without much direct benefit to the actor,” she says.

A professor’s view

Lydia Meena, Kruti Vekaria, Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz, Abigail Marsh and Elise Cardinale pose together standing.

Psychology professor Abigail Marsh, fourth from left, with Kristin Brethel-Haurwitz (G’16), third from left, after she successfully defended her dissertation. From left, Lydia Meena (C’16), Kruti Vekaria (G’19) and Elise Cardinale (G’17) join in the celebration.


“Kristin is a great combination of someone with an incredible amount of determination, grit and passion for her research,” Marsh recalls of her former advisee.

Brethel-Haurwitz and Marsh continue to collaborate on research projects  related to understanding altruistic motivation and behavior. 

“I think it’s natural for students and faculty with common interests and a great working relationship to want to continue working on projects together even after the students graduate,” Marsh says.

Research at Penn: The Georgetown alumna’s postdoctoral work focuses on the opposite end of the empathic continuum.

“I’m currently conducting a series of studies to better understand why people make particularly selfish decisions or why some people tend to be more selfish than others,” Brethel-Haurwitz explains.

Why she chose Georgetown: Brethel-Haurwitz says the psychology department’s close-knit community allowed her to develop close relationships with her peers in the lab and the faculty.

“It’s definitely a highly collaborative environment,” she says “Everybody works together and helps each other out.