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Functional MRI examination of empathy for pain in people with schizophrenia reveals abnormal activation related to cognitive perspective-taking but typical activation linked to affective sharing.

Publication Type:

Journal Article

Source:

J Psychiatry Neurosci, Volume 42, Issue 4, p.262-272 (2017)

Abstract:

BACKGROUND: Schizophrenia is associated with important disturbances in empathy that are related to everyday functioning. Empathy is classically defined as including affective (sharing others' emotions) and cognitive (taking others' cognitive perspectives) processes. In healthy individuals, studies on empathy for pain revealed specific brain systems associated with these sets of processes, notably the anterior middle cingulate (aMCC) and anterior insula (AI) for affective sharing and the bilateral temporoparietal junction (TPJ) for the cognitive processes, but the integrity of these systems in patients with schizophrenia remains uncertain.

METHODS: Patients with schizophrenia and healthy controls performed a pain empathy task while undergoing fMRI scanning. Participants observed pictures of hands in either painful or nonpainful situations and rated the level of pain while imagining either themselves (self) or an unknown person (other) in these situations.

RESULTS: We included 27 patients with schizophrenia and 21 healthy controls in our analyses. For the pain versus no pain contrast, patients showed overall typical activation patterns in the aMCC and AI, with only a small part of the aMCC showing reduced activation compared with controls. For the other versus self contrast, patients showed an abnormal modulation of activation in the TPJ bilaterally (extending to the posterior superior temporal sulcus, referred to as the TPJ/pSTS).

LIMITATIONS: The design included an unnecessary manipulation of the visual perspective that reduced the number of trials for analysis. The sample size may not account for the heterogeneity of schizophrenia.

CONCLUSION: People with schizophrenia showed relatively intact brain activation when observing others' pain, but showed abnormalities when asked to take the cognitive perspectives of others.

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