Mirror neurons and empathy-related regions in psychopathy: Systematic review, meta-analysis, and a working model

Soc Neurosci. 2022 Oct;17(5):462-479. doi: 10.1080/17470919.2022.2128868. Epub 2022 Oct 4.


Mirror neurons have been associated with empathy. People with psychopathic traits present low levels of empathy. To analyze this, a systematic review of fMRI studies of people with psychopathic traits during an emotional facial expression processing task was performed. The regions of interest were structures associated with the mirror neuron system: ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), inferior parietal lobe (IPL), inferior frontal gyrus and superior temporal sulcus. The analysis was also extended to structures related to affective empathy (insula, amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex) and to two more emotional processing areas (orbitofrontal cortex and fusiform gyrus). Hypoactivation was more frequently observed in regions of the mirror neuron system from people with high psychopathic traits, as well as in the emotional processing structures, and those associated with affective empathy, except for the insula, where it presented higher activity. Differences were observed for all types of emotions. The results suggest that the mirror neuron system is altered in psychopathy and their relationship with affective empathy deficits is discussed.

Keywords: Mirror neurons; affective empathy; emotional processing; facial expressions; psychopathy.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review
  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Antisocial Personality Disorder / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Empathy
  • Facial Expression
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Mirror Neurons* / physiology