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People Who Donate Organs To Strangers Have This Special Brain Feature, Researchers Say

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- There's new research out on altruistic kidney donors, people who donate an organ to a stranger. It turns out, their brains are different.

You might wonder why people would be motivated to give an organ to a stranger. It involves surgery, some risk and pain. They're obviously extremely generous and researchers say it appears they have a special brain feature.

Linda Hughes, who lives in South Jersey, saw a Facebook post that inspired her to become a kidney donor to a stranger. But it turned into an even bigger donation.

Hughes wasn't a match for the person on Facebook, so she decided to start a chain that resulted in seven transplants.

"It's not something that's changed my life but I know what I did changed other people's lives. That's pretty powerful," Hughes said.

Hughes ended up being a match for a woman in Kentucky, who she finally met last year.

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Hughes is one of just a few hundred people every year who become altruistic kidney donors.

"It is an extraordinary form of altruism in a lot of ways," Georgetown University psychology professor Abigail Marsh said.

Marsh is studying the brains of altruistic donors to understand why some people are so generous. Imaging shows a distinction.

"They seem to have just a little extra matter -- a little extra material in this region of the brain that we know is really important to producing an empathic response," Marsh said. "There is a structure in the brain called the amygdala, and people that are psychopathic have smaller than average. And in altruistic kidney donors, it's larger than average by about eight percent."

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That makes them more inclined to take significant risks and costs to help others.

"When people say 'Why would you do it?' I feel like if I have this power, this ability to help someone, I would be upset with myself if I didn't do it," Hughes said.

Hughes says the surgery discomfort was a small price to pay. Doctors say most healthy people can safely live with just one kidney. All donor are carefully screened physically and emotionally.

Nearly 100,000 people in the U.S. are currently waiting for a kidney transplant.

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