Functional modularity of the medial prefrontal cortex: involvement in human empathy

Neuropsychology. 2006 Nov;20(6):743-751. doi: 10.1037/0894-4105.20.6.743.


To investigate medial frontal lobe mediation of human empathy, the authors analyzed the activation areas in statistical parametric maps of 80 studies reporting neural correlates of empathic processing. The meta-analysis revealed 6 spatially distinct activation clusters in the medial part of the frontal lobe dorsal to the intercommissural plane. The most dorsal cluster coincided with the left supplementary motor area (SMA). Rostrally adjacent was a cluster that overlapped with the right pre-SMA. In addition, there were 3 left-hemispheric and 1 right-hemispheric clusters located at the border between the superior frontal and anterior cingulate gyrus. A broad spectrum of cognitive functions were associated with these clusters, including attention to one's own action, which was related to activations in the SMA, and valuation of other people's behavior and ethical categories, which was related to activations in the most rostroventral cluster. These data complement the consistent observation that lesions of the medial prefrontal cortex interfere with a patient's perception of own bodily state, emotional judgments, and spontaneous behavior. The results of the current meta-analysis suggest the medial prefrontal cortex mediates human empathy by virtue of a number of distinctive processing nodes. In this way, the authors' findings suggest differentiated aspects of self-control of behavior.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Brain Injuries / psychology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation / physiology
  • Empathy*
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Motivation
  • Motor Cortex / physiology
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Prefrontal Cortex / blood supply
  • Prefrontal Cortex / injuries
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Self Concept