Neural processing of sensory and emotional-communicative information associated with the perception of vicarious pain

Department of psychology, Université de Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
NeuroImage (Impact Factor: 6.36). 06/2012; 63(1):54-62. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.06.030
Source: PubMed


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.

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    • "The current study sought to further examine how attention to the level of pain, rather than to movements, in expressions primes observers' pain systems. Brain imaging studies have shown that observation of others' pain expressions activates brain areas associated with the human mirror neuron system, the affective processing of pain, and in the theory of mind [7] [33]. Budell et al. showed that attention to the level of pain in expressions is associated with stronger activation in brain areas associated with the extraction of meaning from expressions (ie, ventral-inferior-frontal gyrus and medialprefrontal cortex), whereas attention to facial movements is associated with greater activation in movement-related brain areas http://dx.doi. "
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    ABSTRACT: The observation of others' facial expressions of pain has been shown to facilitate the observer's nociceptive responses and to increase pain perception. We investigated how this vicarious facilitation effect is modulated by directing the observer's attention toward the meaning of pain expression or the facial movements. In separate trials, participants were instructed to assess the "intensity of the pain expression"(meaning) or to "discriminate the facial movements" in the upper vs lower part of the face shown in 1-sec dynamic clips displaying mild, moderate or strong pain expressions or a neutral control. In 50% of the trials, participants received a painful electrical-stimulation to the sural nerve immediately after the presentation of the expression. Low-level nociceptive reactivity was measured with the RIII-response and pain perception was assessed using pain ratings. Pain induced by the electrical stimulation increased after viewing stronger pain expressions in both tasks but the RIII-response showed this vicarious facilitation effect only in the movement discrimination task at the strongest expression intensity. These findings are consistent with the notion that vicarious processes facilitate self-pain and may prime automatic nociceptive responses. However, this priming effect is influenced by top-down attentional processes. These results provide another case of dissociation between reflexive and perceptual processes, consistent with the involvement of partly separate brain networks in the regulation of cortical and lower-level nociceptive responses. Combined with previous results, these findings suggest that vicarious pain facilitation is an automatic process that may be diminished by top-down attentional processes directed at the meaning of the expression.
    Full-text · Article · Jul 2014 · Pain
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    • "In the study of Sheng and Han [33], painful and neutral facial expressions were used to represent painful and non-painful conditions. Previous studies have shown that processing of facial expressions, with more complex characteristics than neutral faces, recruits areas involved in mentalizing and theory of mind such as the medial prefrontal cortex and inferior frontal gyrus [63], [64]. Perception of nociceptive touch, however, may stem more directly from sensori-motor activity, perhaps involving “mirroring” mechanisms [65], that may be less influenced by higher-order social group categorization. "
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    ABSTRACT: Recent studies have shown that perceiving the pain of others activates brain regions in the observer associated with both somatosensory and affective-motivational aspects of pain, principally involving regions of the anterior cingulate and anterior insula cortex. The degree of these empathic neural responses is modulated by racial bias, such that stronger neural activation is elicited by observing pain in people of the same racial group compared with people of another racial group. The aim of the present study was to examine whether a more general social group category, other than race, could similarly modulate neural empathic responses and perhaps account for the apparent racial bias reported in previous studies. Using a minimal group paradigm, we assigned participants to one of two mixed-race teams. We use the term race to refer to the Chinese or Caucasian appearance of faces and whether the ethnic group represented was the same or different from the appearance of the participant' own face. Using fMRI, we measured neural empathic responses as participants observed members of their own group or other group, and members of their own race or other race, receiving either painful or non-painful touch. Participants showed clear group biases, with no significant effect of race, on behavioral measures of implicit (affective priming) and explicit group identification. Neural responses to observed pain in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula cortex, and somatosensory areas showed significantly greater activation when observing pain in own-race compared with other-race individuals, with no significant effect of minimal groups. These results suggest that racial bias in neural empathic responses is not influenced by minimal forms of group categorization, despite the clear association participants showed with in-group more than out-group members. We suggest that race may be an automatic and unconscious mechanism that drives the initial neural responses to observed pain in others.
    Full-text · Article · Dec 2013 · PLoS ONE
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    • "Research may shed light on this question. CNS regions used to elicit empathic responses differ according to whether the observer is looking at facial expressions, which displays emotional-communicative information, vs. the limbs (Gu and Han, 2007; Han et al., 2009; Vachon-Presseau et al., 2012). Perhaps physicians who are in specialties with high amounts of patient contact, e.g., family practice and internal medicine, who are constantly looking at the patient's facial expressions, may have a greater empathic response than physicians who perform painful procedures, e.g., general surgeons or orthopedists, but do not have to look at the patient's face while performing surgery. "
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    ABSTRACT: Establishing an empathic physician-patient relationship is an essential physician skill. This chapter discusses the sexually dimorphic aspects of the neural components involved in affective and cognitive empathy, and examines why men and women medical students or physicians express different levels of empathy. Studies reveal levels of medical student affective or cognitive empathy can help reveal which medical specialty a student will enter. The data show students or physicians with higher empathy enter into specialties characterized by large amounts of patient contact and continuity of care; and individuals with lower levels of empathy desire specialties having little or no patient contact and little to no continuity of care. Burnout and stress can decrease the empathy physicians had when they first entered medical school to unacceptable levels. Conversely, having a too empathetic physician can let patient conditions and reactions interfere with the ability to provide effective care. By learning to blunt affective empathic responses, physicians establish a certain degree of empathic detachment with the patient in order to provide objective care. However, a physician must not become so detached and hardened that their conduct appears callous, because it is still important for physicians, especially those in specialties with a large amount of patient contact, to use empathic communication skills.
    Full-text · Article · Jun 2013 · Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
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