The effect of sleep restriction on empathy for pain: An fMRI study in younger and older adults

Sci Rep. 2017 Sep 25;7(1):12236. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-12098-9.


Age and sleep both affect emotional functioning. Since sleep patterns change over the lifespan, we investigated the effects of short sleep and age on empathic responses. In a randomized cross-over experimental design, healthy young and older volunteers (n = 47 aged 20-30 years and n = 39 aged 65-75 years) underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) after normal sleep or night sleep restricted to 3 hours. During fMRI, participants viewed pictures of needles pricking a hand (pain) or Q-tips touching a hand (control), a well-established paradigm to investigate empathy for pain. There was no main effect of sleep restriction on empathy. However, age and sleep interacted so that sleep restriction caused increased unpleasantness in older but not in young participants. Irrespective of sleep condition, older participants showed increased activity in angular gyrus, superior temporal sulcus and temporo-parietal junction compared to young. Speculatively, this could indicate that the older individuals adopted a more cognitive approach in response to others' pain. Our findings suggest that caution in generalizability across age groups is needed in further studies of sleep on social cognition and emotion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Pain*
  • Sleep Deprivation / psychology*
  • Young Adult