Until recently, research has suggested that severe episodes of depression can reduce a person’s ability to feel empathy, an essential skill for successful social interactions and understanding others. However, most of these studies have been conducted with groups of patients taking antidepressant medications.
Now in a new Austrian study, an interdisciplinary team of social neuroscientists, neuroimaging experts, and psychiatrists from the University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna set out to disentangle the effects of acute depressive episodes and antidepressant treatment on empathy.
The researchers discovered that it is the antidepressant treatment — not the depressive episode — which can lead to impaired empathy toward perception of pain.
For the study, patients with severe depression underwent two experiments testing their empathic responses to the pain of others: First, they were tested during an acute depressive episode before they had received any medication. Then they were tested again after three months of psychopharmacological treatment with antidepressants (mostly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs).
In both sessions, patients underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching videos of people undergoing painful medical procedures. Their brain activity and self-reported empathy levels were compared to those of a group of healthy controls.
The findings show that, before treatment, depressed patients and healthy controls responded in a comparable way.
But after three months of antidepressant treatment, the researchers discovered notable differences: Medicated patients reported their levels of empathy to be lower, and brain activation was reduced in areas previously associated with empathy.
First author Dr. Markus Rütgen underlines that reduced empathic responses were not caused by a general dampening of negative emotions. “The lowered emotional impact of negative events in a social context possibly allows patients to recover more easily. Nevertheless, the actual impact of reduced empathy on patients’ social behavior remains to be explored,” he said.
The findings are published in the scientific journal Translational Psychiatry.
Source: University of Vienna