Low Empathy-Like Behaviour in Male Mice Associates With Impaired Sociability, Emotional Memory, Physiological Stress Reactivity and Variations in Neurobiological Regulations

PLoS One. 2017 Dec 4;12(12):e0188907. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0188907. eCollection 2017.


Deficits in empathy have been proposed to constitute a hallmark of several psychiatric disturbances like conduct disorder, antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders. Limited sensitivity to punishment, shallow or deficient affect and reduced physiological reactivity to environmental stressors have been often reported to co-occur with limited empathy and contribute to the onset of antisocial phenotypes. Empathy in its simplest form (i.e. emotional contagion) is addressed in preclinical models through the evaluation of the social transmission of emotional states: mice exposed to a painful stimulus display a higher response if in the presence of a familiar individual experiencing a higher degree of discomfort, than in isolation. In the present study, we investigated whether a reduction of emotional contagion can be considered a predictor of reduced sociality, sensitivity to punishment and physiological stress reactivity. To this aim, we first evaluated emotional contagion in a group of Balb/cJ mice and then discretised their values in four quartiles. The upper (i.e. Emotional Contagion Prone, ECP) and the lower (i.e. Emotional Contagion Resistant, ECR) quartiles constituted the experimental groups. Our results indicate that mice in the lower quartile are characterized by reduced sociability, impaired memory of negative events and dampened hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical reactivity to external stressors. Furthermore, in the absence of changes in oxytocin receptor density, we show that these mice exhibit elevated concentrations of oxytocin and vasopressin and reduced density of BDNF receptors in behaviourally-relevant brain areas. Thus, not only do present results translate to the preclinical investigation of psychiatric disturbances, but also they can contribute to the study of emotional contagion in terms of its adaptive significance.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Empathy / physiology*
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / metabolism
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred BALB C
  • Oxytocin / metabolism
  • Receptor, trkB / metabolism
  • Receptors, Oxytocin / metabolism
  • Stress, Physiological / physiology*
  • Vasopressins / metabolism


  • Receptors, Oxytocin
  • Vasopressins
  • Oxytocin
  • Receptor, trkB

Grant support

The authors of this manuscript received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) under grant agreement n° 603016 (Project MATRICS) and n° 278367 (Project EMTICS). This paper reflects only the authors’ views and the European Union is not liable for any use that may be made of the information contained therein. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.