Medical students and professional healthcare providers often underestimate patients’ pain, together with decreased neural responses to pain information in the anterior insula (AI), a brain region implicated in self-pain processing and negative affect. However, the functional significance and specificity of these neural changes remains debated. Across two experiments, we recruited university medical students and emergency nurses to test the role of healthcare experience on the brain reactivity to other’s pain, emotions, and beliefs, using both pictorial and verbal cues. Brain responses to self-pain was also assessed and compared with those to observed pain. Our results confirmed that healthcare experience decreased the activity in AI in response to others’ suffering. This effect was independent from stimulus modality (pictures or texts), but specific for pain, as it did not generalize to inferences about other mental or affective states. Furthermore, representational similarity and multivariate pattern analysis revealed that healthcare experience impacted specifically a component of the neural representation of others’ pain that is shared with that of first-hand nociception, and related more to AI than to other pain-responsive regions. Taken together, our study suggests a decreased propensity to appraise others’ suffering as one’s own, associated with a reduced recruitment of pain-specific information in AI. These findings provide new insights into neural mechanisms leading to pain underestimation by caregivers in clinical settings.
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