Empathy and judging other's pain: an fMRI study of alexithymia

Cereb Cortex. 2007 Sep;17(9):2223-34. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhl130. Epub 2006 Dec 5.


Because awareness of emotional states in the self is a prerequisite to recognizing such states in others, alexithymia (ALEX), difficulty in identifying and expressing one's own emotional states, should involve impairment in empathy. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we compared an ALEX group (n = 16) and a non-alexithymia (non-ALEX) group (n = 14) for their regional hemodynamic responses to the visual perception of pictures depicting human hands and feet in painful situations. Subjective pain ratings of the pictures and empathy-related psychological scores were also compared between the 2 groups. The ALEX group showed less cerebral activation in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), the dorsal pons, the cerebellum, and the left caudal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) within the pain matrix. The ALEX group showed greater activation in the right insula and inferior frontal gyrus. Furthermore, alexithymic participants scored lower on the pain ratings and on the scores related to mature empathy. In conclusion, the hypofunction in the DLPFC, brain stem, cerebellum, and ACC and the lower pain-rating and empathy-related scores in ALEX are related to cognitive impairments, particularly executive and regulatory aspects, of emotional processing and support the importance of self-awareness in empathy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affective Symptoms / pathology*
  • Affective Symptoms / psychology*
  • Brain Stem / physiology
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiology
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Nerve Net / physiology
  • Pain / psychology*
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Psychological Tests
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology
  • Thalamus / physiology