Age-related differences in negative cognitive empathy but similarities in positive affective empathy

Brain Struct Funct. 2021 Jul;226(6):1823-1840. doi: 10.1007/s00429-021-02291-y. Epub 2021 May 26.


Empathy, among other social-cognitive processes, changes across adulthood. More specifically, cognitive components of empathy (understanding another's perspective) appear to decline with age, while findings for affective empathy (sharing another's emotional state) are rather mixed. Structural and functional correlates underlying cognitive and affective empathy in aging and the extent to which valence affects empathic response in brain and behavior are not well understood yet. To fill these research gaps, younger and older adults completed a modified version of the Multifaceted Empathy Test, which measures both cognitive and affective empathy as well as empathic responding to both positive and negative stimuli (i.e., positive vs. negative empathy). Adopting a multimodal imaging approach and applying multivariate analysis, the study found that for cognitive empathy to negative emotions, regions of the salience network including the anterior insula and anterior cingulate were more involved in older than younger adults. For affective empathy to positive emotions, in contrast, younger and older adults recruited a similar brain network including main nodes of the default mode network. Additionally, increased structural microstructure (fractional anisotropy values) of the posterior cingulum bundle (right henisphere) was related to activation of default mode regions during affective empathy for positive emotions in both age groups. These findings provide novel insights into the functional networks subserving cognitive and affective empathy in younger and older adults and highlight the importance of considering valence in empathic response in aging research. Further this study, for the first time, underscores the role of the posterior cingulum bundle in higher-order social-cognitive processes such as empathy, specifically for positive emotions, in aging.

Keywords: Aging; Cingulum bundle; Default mode network; Empathy; Multivariate; Salience network.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Cognition
  • Emotions
  • Empathy*
  • Geroscience