Relating anatomical and social connectivity: white matter microstructure predicts emotional empathy

Cereb Cortex. 2014 Mar;24(3):614-25. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhs347. Epub 2012 Nov 16.


Understanding cues to the internal states of others involves a widely distributed network of brain regions. Although white matter (WM) connections are likely crucial for communication between these regions, the role of anatomical connectivity in empathic processing remains unexplored. The present study tested for a relationship between anatomical connectivity and empathy by assessing the WM microstructural correlates of affective empathy, which promotes interpersonal understanding through emotional reactions, and cognitive empathy, which does so via perspective taking. Associations between fractional anisotropy (FA) and the emotional (empathic concern, EC) and cognitive (perspective taking, PT) dimensions of empathy as assessed by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index were examined. EC was positively associated with FA in tracts providing communicative pathways within the limbic system, between perception and action-related regions, and between perception and affect-related regions, independently of individual differences in age, gender, and other dimensions of interpersonal reactivity. These findings provide a neuroanatomical basis for the rapid, privileged processing of emotional sensory information and the automatic elicitation of responses to the affective displays of others.

Keywords: diffusion tensor imaging; empathy; mirror neurons; social cognition; superior longitudinal fasciculus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anisotropy
  • Brain / anatomy & histology*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Music
  • Nerve Fibers, Myelinated / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / anatomy & histology
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Social Behavior
  • Young Adult