Empathy for pain activates brain areas partially overlapping with those underpinning the first-hand experience of pain. It remains unclear, however, whether such shared activations imply that pain empathy engages similar neural functions as first-hand pain experiences. To overcome the limitations of previous neuroimaging research, we pursued a conceptually novel approach: we used the phenomenon of placebo analgesia to experimentally reduce the first-hand experience of pain, and assessed whether this results in a concomitant reduction of empathy for pain. We first carried out a functional MRI experiment (n = 102) that yielded results in the expected direction: participants experiencing placebo analgesia also reported decreased empathy for pain, and this was associated with reduced engagement of anterior insular and midcingulate cortex: that is, areas previously associated with shared activations in pain and empathy for pain. In a second step, we used a psychopharmacological manipulation (n = 50) to determine whether these effects can be blocked via an opioid antagonist. The administration of the opioid antagonist naltrexone blocked placebo analgesia and also resulted in a corresponding "normalization" of empathy for pain. Taken together, these findings suggest that pain empathy may be associated with neural responses and neurotransmitter activity engaged during first-hand pain, and thus might indeed be grounded in our own pain experiences.
Keywords: empathy; fMRI; pain; placebo; psychopharmacology.