ABSTRACT: The specific neural processes underlying vicarious pain perception are not fully understood. In this functional imaging study, 20 participants viewed pain-evoking or neutral images displaying either sensory or emotional-communicative information. The pain images displayed nociceptive agents applied to the hand or the foot (sensory information) or facial expressions of pain (emotional-communicative information) and were matched with their neutral counterparts. Combining pain-evoking and neutral images showed that body limbs elicited greater activity in sensory motor regions, whereas midline frontal and parietal cortices and the amygdala responded more strongly to faces. The pain-evoking images elicited greater activity than their neutral counterparts in the bilateral inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), the left inferior parietal lobule (IPL) and the bilateral extrastriate body area. However, greater pain-related activity was observed in the rostral IPL when images depicted a hand or foot compared to a facial expression of pain, suggesting a more specific involvement in the coding of somato-motor information. Posterior probability maps enabling Bayesian inferences further showed that the anterior IFG (BA 45 and 47) was the only region showing no intrinsic probability of activation by the neutral images, consistent with a role in the extraction of the meaning of pain-related visual cues. Finally, inter-individual empathy traits correlated with responses in the supracallosal mid/anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula when pain-evoking images of body limbs or facial expressions were presented, suggesting that these regions regulated the observer's affective-motivational response independent from the channels from which vicarious pain is perceived.
NeuroImage 06/2012; 63(1):54-62. · 5.89 Impact Factor