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Front. Behav. Neurosci. | doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2019.00085

Neuroanatomical and functional correlates of cognitive and affective empathy in young healthy adults

  • 1Unidad de Psicologia Médica, Facultad de Medicina, Universidad de Barcelona, Spain
  • 2Network Biomedical Research Center on Neurodegenerative Diseases (CIBERNED), Spain
  • 3August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS), Spain

Neural substrates of empathy are mainly investigated through task-related functional MRI. However, the functional neural mechanisms at rest underlying the empathic response have been poorly studied. We aimed to investigate neuroanatomical and functional substrates of cognitive and affective empathy. The self-reported empathy questionnaire Cognitive and Affective Empathy Test (TECA), T1 and T2*-weighted 3-Tesla MRI were obtained from 22 healthy young females (mean age: 19.6±2.4) and 20 males (mean age: 22.5±4.4). Groups of low and high empathy were established for each scale. FreeSurfer v6.0 was used to estimate cortical thickness and to automatically segment the subcortical structures. FSL v5.0.10 was used to compare resting-state connectivity differences between empathy groups in six defined regions: the orbitofrontal, cingulate, and insular cortices, and the amygdala, hippocampus, and thalamus using a nonparametric permutation approach. The high empathy group in the Perspective Taking subscale (cognitive empathy) had greater thickness in the left orbitofrontal and ventrolateral frontal cortices, bilateral anterior cingulate, superior frontal, and occipital regions. Within the affective empathy scales, subjects with high Empathic Distress had higher thalamic volumes than the low-empathy group. Regarding resting-state connectivity analyses, low-empathy individuals in the Empathic Happiness scale had increased connectivity between the orbitofrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate when compared with the high-empathy group. In conclusion, from a structural point of view, there is a clear dissociation between the brain correlates of affective and cognitive factors of empathy. Neocortical correlates were found for the cognitive empathy dimension, whereas affective empathy is related to lower volumes in subcortical structures. Functionally, affective empathy is linked to connectivity between the orbital and cingulate cortices.

Keywords: cognitive empathy, affective empathy, healthy subjects, cortical thickness, fMRI, Resting-state connectivity, Young adults (18-29 years), orbitofrontal cortex

Received: 05 Nov 2018; Accepted: 11 Apr 2019.

Edited by:

Gennady Knyazev, State Scientific-Research Institute of Physiology & Basic Medicine, Russia

Reviewed by:

Kai Yuan, Xidian University, China
Christopher C. Woodruff, Northern Arizona University, United States
Sien Hu, SUNY Oswego, United States  

Copyright: © 2019 Uribe, Puig-Davi, Abos, Baggio, Junque and Segura. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Ms. Carme Junque, Unidad de Psicologia Médica, Facultad de Medicina, Universidad de Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain, cjunque@ub.edu