Santa Lucia - Neurosciences and Rehabilitation Sapienza University of Rome

Soc Neurosci. 2006;1(3-4):320-33. doi: 10.1080/17470910601035954

Left hemisphere dominance in reading the sensory qualities of others' pain?

Seeing or imagining others in pain may activate both the sensory and affective components of the neural network (pain matrix) that is activated during the personal experience of pain. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), proved adept at highlighting the sensorimotor side of empathy for pain in studies where mere observation of needles penetrating body parts of a human model brought about a clear corticospinal motor inhibition. By using TMS, we investigated whether inferring the sensory properties of the pain of a model influenced the somatomotor system of an onlooker. Moreover, we tested the possible lateralization of the motor substrates underlying this reading process. We recorded motor-evoked potentials (MEPs) to left and right motor cortex stimulation during the observation of "flesh and bone" painful stimulations of right and left hands respectively. We found a significant reduction of onlookers' MEPs amplitudes specific to the muscle penetrated in the model. Subjective inferences about localization and intensity of the observed pain were associated with specific patterns of motor modulation with larger inhibitory effects following stimulation of the left motor cortex. Thus, results indicate that the mental simulation of the sensory qualities of others' pain may be lateralized to the left hemisphere.

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