Why is it that we can get sad, when we see someone else crying? Why is it that we wince, when a friend cuts his finger? Researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience have found that the rat brain activates the same cells when they observe the pain of others as when they experience pain themselves. In addition, without activity of these “mirror neurons”, the animals cease to share the pain of others. As many psychiatric disorders are characterized by a lack of empathy, finding the neural basis for sharing the emotions of others, and being able to modify how much an animal shares the emotions of others, is an exciting step towards understanding empathy and these disorders. The findings are published in the leading journal Current Biology.
Human neuroimaging studies have shown that when we experience pain ourselves, we activate a region of the brain called “the cingulate cortex”. When we see someone else in pain, we reactivate the same region.
On the basis of this, researchers formulated two speculations: (a) the cingulate cortex contains mirror neurons, i.e. neurons that trigger our own feeling of pain and are reactivated when we see the pain of others, and (b) that this is the reason why we wince and feel pain while seeing the pain of others. However, this intuitively plausible theory of empathy remained untested because it is not possible to record the activity of individual brain cells in humans. Moreover, it is not possible to modulate brain activity in the human cingulate cortex to determine whether this brain region is responsible for empathy.
Rat shares emotions of others
For the first time, researchers at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience were able to test the theory of empathy in rats. They had rats look at other rats receiving an unpleasant stimulus (mild shock), and measured what happened with the brain and behavior of the observing rat. When rats are scared, their natural reaction is to freeze to avoid being detected by predators. The researchers found that the rat also froze when it observed another rat exposed to an unpleasant situation.
This finding suggests that the observing rat shared the emotion of the other rat. Corresponding recordings of the cingulate cortex, the very region thought to underpin empathy in humans, showed that the observing rats activated the very neurons in the cingulate cortex that also became active when the rat itself experienced pain in a separate experiment. Subsequently, the researchers suppressed the activity of cells in the cingulate cortex through the injection of a drug. They found that without activity in this brain region, the rats no longer froze.
Same region in rats and humans
This study shows that the brain makes us share the pain of others by activating the same cells that trigger our own pain. So far, this had never been shown for emotions – so called mirror neurons had only been found in the motor system. In addition, this form of pain empathy can be suppressed by modifying activity in the cingulate cortex.
“What is most amazing”, says Prof. Christian Keysers, the lead author of the study, “is that in rats this all happens in exactly the same brain region as it does in humans. We had already found in humans, that brain activity of the cingulate cortex increases when we observe the pain of others, unless we are talking about psychopathic criminals, who show a remarkable reduction of this activity.” The study thus sheds some light one these mysterious psychopathological disorders. “It also shows us that empathy, the ability to feel the emotions of others, is deeply rooted in our evolution. We share the fundamental mechanisms of empathy with animals like rats. Rats have so far not always enjoyed the highest moral reputation. So the next time you are tempted to call someone “a rat”, it might be taken as a compliment…”
Listen to a podcast featuring Christian Keysers and Valeria Gazzola about this discovery.