Detached empathic experience of others' pain in remitted states of depression - An fMRI study

Neuroimage Clin. 2021;31:102699. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2021.102699. Epub 2021 May 14.


Background: Major depressive disorder is strongly associated with impairments and difficulties in social interactions. Deficits in empathy, a vital skill for social interactions, have been identified as a risk factor for relapse. However, research on empathy in remitted states of depression is scarce. We chose a social neuroscience approach to investigate potentially altered neural processes involved in sub-components of empathy in remitted states of depression. We expected aberrations in cognitive components of empathy, based on previous reports regarding their role as risk factors for relapse.

Methods: Employing functional magnetic resonance imaging and a pain empathy task (video clips of painful medical treatments), we compared behavioral and neural empathic responses of unmedicated remitted depressive patients (N = 32) to those of untreated acutely depressed patients (N = 29) and healthy controls (N = 35). Self-report ratings of pain evaluation and affect-sharing were obtained.

Results: Compared to controls and acutely depressed patients, remitted depressive patients reported higher pain evaluation and showed increased activity in the right temporo-parietal junction. This region, which is central to self-other distinction and which has been linked to adopting a detached perspective, also exhibited reduced connectivity to the anterior insula. Furthermore, we observed reduced activity in regions involved in emotion processing (amygdala) and perception of affective facial expressions (fusiform face area, posterior superior temporal sulcus).

Conclusions: Remitted states of depression are associated with a detached empathic style in response to others' pain, characterized by increased self-other distinction, lowered affective processing, and reduced connectivity between empathy-related brain regions. Although this may prevent emotional harm in specific situations, it may reduce opportunities for positive experiences in social interactions in the long run.

Keywords: Depression; Empathy; Remission; Social cognition; fMRI.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Mapping
  • Depression / diagnostic imaging
  • Depressive Disorder, Major* / diagnostic imaging
  • Emotions
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Pain