Published: 29-09-2015 11:49 | Updated: 02-05-2016 16:45

Reducing our own pain is also reducing empathy for pain in others

The ability to feel the pain of others is based on neurobiological processes which underlie pain experience in oneself. In a novel study published in the journal PNAS, an international research team now show that that a reduction of self-experienced pain leads to a reduction in empathy for pain in others as well. According to the researchers, this effect is probably underpinned by endogenous opioids.

The study was headed by Professor Claus Lamm from the University of Vienna in Austria and included Dr Predrag Petrovic from the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institutet. To reach their conclusions, the research team used an innovative experimental “trick”, the so-called placebo analgesia effect, to close an explanatory gap in the understanding of the neurobiological mechanisms of empathy.

Experimentally manipulating self-experienced pain in over 100 study participants, the researchers tested whether this manipulation also leads to an equivalent change in empathy for pain. This “trick” enabled them to conclude with higher certainty that empathy relies on simulation. Participants in the placebo group reported significantly less subjective pain experience, which was associated with reduced brain activation in anterior insula and midcingulate cortex.

Opioid receptors

In a follow-up study, the research team tested the involvement of the opioid system in the previously observed placebo-empathy effect in order to enable precise conclusions on the underlying neurotransmitter systems. By using a substance that blocks opioid receptors, the team induced a blocking of the placebo-empathy effect in 50 participants. According to the researchers, this result strongly suggests an involvement of the opioid system in placebo-empathy, which is an important step to a more mechanistic understanding of empathy.

The study was supported with grants from the Vienna Science and Technology Fund. This news article is an edited version of a press release from the University of Vienna.


Empathy for pain is grounded in self pain: Evidence from placebo analgesia and its opioidergic regulation
Markus Rütgen, Eva-Maria Seidel, Giorgia Silani, Igor Riecansky, Allan Hummer, Christian Windischberger, Predrag Petrovic, and Claus Lamm
PNAS, online early edition 28 Sept – 2 Oct 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1511269112