An international team of researchers has demonstrated, for the first time, that a particular area of the brain — called the anterior insular cortex — is where human empathy originates.
“Now that we know the specific brain mechanisms associated with empathy, we can translate these findings into disease categories and learn why these empathic responses are deficient in neuropsychiatric illnesses, such as autism,” said Patrick R. Hof, M.D., a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
Over the past decade, scientists have used powerful functional MRI imaging to identify several regions in the brain that are associated with empathy for pain. The current study, however, firmly indicates that the feeling of empathy originates in the anterior insular cortex.
“This will help direct neuropathologic investigations aiming to define the specific abnormalities in identifiable neuronal circuits in these conditions, bringing us one step closer to developing better models and eventually preventive or protective strategies,” said Hof.
For the study, participants viewed color photographs of people in pain. Three of these patients had lesions in the anterior insular cortex, caused by the removal of brain tumors. Nine patients had lesions in other areas of the brain, and 14 patients (the controls) had neurologically intact brains.
The researchers found that patients with damage only in the anterior insular cortex had difficulty feeling empathy.
“In other words, patients with anterior insular lesions had a hard time evaluating the emotional state of people in pain and feeling empathy for them, compared to the controls and the patients with anterior cingulate cortex lesions,” said the researchers.
This study provides the first evidence suggesting that the empathy deficits in patients with brain damage to the anterior insular cortex are strikingly similar to the empathy problems found in several psychiatric diseases, according to Xiaosi Gu, Ph.D., who originally conducted the research.
These include autism spectrum disorders, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and conduct disorders, suggesting potentially common neural deficits in these illnesses.
“Our findings provide strong evidence that empathy is mediated in a specific area of the brain,” said Gu, who now works at University College London. “The findings have implications for a wide range of neuropsychiatric illnesses, such as autism and some forms of dementia, which are characterized by prominent deficits in higher-level social functioning.”
The research suggests that behavioral and cognitive therapies can be developed to compensate for problems in the anterior insular cortex and its related functions.
The study is published in the journal Brain.
Source: Mount Sinai Medical Center