Santa Lucia - Neurosciences and Rehabilitation Sapienza University of Rome

J Neurosci. 2009 Oct 7;29(40):12384-92. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2759-09.2009

Synchronous with your feelings: sensorimotor γ band and empathy for pain

Neuroscience studies on the social sharing of observed or imagined pain focused on whether empathic pain resonance is linked to affective or sensory nodes of the pain matrix. However, empathy, like other complex cognitive processes, is inherently linked to the activation of functional networks rather than of separate brain areas. Here, we used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to explore the relationship between empathy and functional coupling of neuronal activity in primary somatosensory (SI) and motor (MI) cortices. MEG recording was performed while healthy participants observed movie-clips depicting the static hand of a stranger model, the same hand deeply penetrated by a needle, or gently touched by a Q-tip. Subjects were asked to rate the movie-derived sensations attributed to self or to the model. For each type of clip observation, we analyzed spectral power and coherence values in alpha, beta, and gamma frequency bands. While spectral power indexes separate neural activity in SI and MI, coherence values index functional cross-talk between these two areas. No power changes of SI or MI sources were induced by observation conditions in any of the frequency bands. Crucially, gamma-band coherence values were significantly higher during needle-in-hand than touch and static hand observation and correlated with self-and other-referred pain ratings derived from needle-in-hand movies observation. Thus, observation of others' pain increases neuronal synchronization and cross-talk between the onlookers' sensory and motor cortices, indicating that empathic resonance relies upon the activity of functional networks more than of single areas.

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