TUESDAY, Jan. 31 (HealthDay News) -- Specific areas of children's brains that are activated by humor have been identified by researchers in a first-of-a-kind study.

The findings, published Feb. 1 in the Journal of Neuroscience, will provide a base for understanding how humor and other positive emotions can affect a child's well-being, according to the Stanford University School of Medicine team.

"Humor is a very important component of emotional health, maintaining relationships, developing cognitive [brain] function and perhaps even medical health," senior study author Dr. Allan Reiss, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford, said in a university news release.

A strong sense of humor is an important part of positive emotion and may help children to be more resilient, he noted.

"In particular, we think a balanced and consistent sense of humor may help children negotiate the difficult period of pre-adolescence and adolescence," Reiss said.

The researchers used functional MRI to scan the brains of 15 children, aged 6 to 12, while they watched short video clips that were categorized as funny, positive or neutral. The positive clips were rewarding to watch but not funny. The neutral clips were neither rewarding nor funny.

The brain scans showed that the funny videos activated two regions of the children's brains that also respond to humor in adults. However, these circuits aren't as developed in children.

Humor activated the children's mesolimbic regions, which process rewards, and the temporal-occipital-parietal junction, which processes perceived incongruities. Incongruities are things that go together that represent opposites (for example, many clowns emerging from a tiny car).

The positive videos activated the reward-processing area but not the area that processes incongruity. This suggests that incongruity -- a surprise for the brain -- is an important factor in humor, the researchers concluded.

"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," Reiss said in the news release. "This work is setting the stage for helping us look at how humor predicts resilience and well-being."

More information

The American Psychiatric Association offers an overview of children's mental health.