Felt and seen pain evoke the same local patterns of cortical activity in insular and cingulate cortex


The discovery of regions in the human brain (e.g., insula and cingulate cortex) that activate both under direct exposure to pain and when perceiving pain in others has been interpreted as a neural signature of empathy. However, this overlap raises the question of whether it may reflect a unique distributed population of bimodal neurons or, alternatively, the activity of intermingled but independent populations. We used fMRI on 28 female volunteers and used multivariate pattern analysis techniques to probe for more fine-grain spatial representations of seen and felt pain. Using a whole-brain approach, we found that only in the anterior insula (bilaterally) the distribution of cortical activity evoked by seeing another person’s hand in pain was spatially similar to that of pain felt on one’s own hand. Subsequent region of interest analyses also implicated the middle insula (right hemisphere) and the middle cingulate cortex. Furthermore, for the anterior insula, the spatial distribution of activity associated with one’s pain also replicates that of the perception of negative but painless stimuli. Our data show how the neural representations of aversive events affecting oneself are also recruited when the same events affect others, and provide the stronger evidence thus far of a unique distributed cortical ensemble coding for aversive events regardless of the subject who is affected.

Journal of Neuroscience. 31(49), 17996-18006
Corrado Corradi˗Dell'Acqua
Corrado Corradi˗Dell'Acqua
Neuroscientist - Cognitive Psychologist - Data Scientist