Editors' ChoiceNeuroscience

Understanding empathy

Sci. Signal.  20 Oct 2015:
Vol. 8, Issue 399, pp. ec296
DOI: 10.1126/scisignal.aad6519

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has shown that similar areas of the brain involved in the emotional feeling triggered by pain are activated in response to people experiencing empathy for someone in pain. However, these types of studies lack sufficient resolution to determine whether the same neural pathways are involved. Rütgen et al. used placebo-induced reduction in pain, a phenomenon called placebo analgesia, as a pain model. After establishing that the administration of a placebo produced both placebo analgesia and a significant reduction in empathetic pain as determined by self-reporting of the test subjects, the authors performed targeted fMRI analysis and found that two of the three regions involved in placebo analgesia also exhibited reduced activity in individuals experiencing reduced pain empathy in response to placebo. Administration of naltrexone, an opioid receptor antagonist, with the placebo increased self-directed and other-directed (empathetic) pain perception and feelings of unpleasantness associated with other-directed pain. These data suggest that pain empathy engages the activity of neural pathways that signal through endogenous opioids, similar to the pathways activated by pain that we experience directly.

M. Rütgen, E.-M. Seidel, G. Silani, I. Riečanský, A. Hummer, C. Windischberger, P. Petrovic, C. Lamm, Placebo analgesia and its opioidergic regulation suggest that empathy for pain is grounded in self pain. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 112, E5638–E5646 (2015). [PubMed]