Development of neural correlates of empathy from childhood to early adulthood: an fMRI study in boys and adult men
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- Greimel, E., Schulte-Rüther, M., Fink, G.R. et al. J Neural Transm (2010) 117: 781. doi:10.1007/s00702-010-0404-9
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Although empathy is rooted early in life, the ability to understand and share the emotions of others continues to develop after childhood. Here, we aimed at exploring developmental changes in the neural mechanisms underlying empathy from childhood to early adulthood. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, 47 healthy male subjects aged 8–27 years were investigated during an explicit empathy task. Emotional faces were presented and participants were either asked to infer the emotional state from the face (other-task) or to judge their own emotional response to the face (self-task). A perceptual decision on the width of faces was used as a control condition. Age-related activity increases were observed in the fusiform gyrus and inferior frontal gyrus, depending on whether subjects attributed emotions to self or other. During the self-task, activity in the right precuneus and right intraparietal sulcus decreased as a function of age. No age-related differences were observed in behavioral performance measures. Increased activity in the fusiform gyrus and in the frontal component of the human mirror neuron system with increasing age may be explained by greater experience and expertise accumulated during socio-emotional interactions. Greater recruitment of right parietal structures in younger as compared to older subjects might reflect developmental differences in the cognitive strategies to infer one’s own emotional response. This study is the first to show developmental changes in the neural mechanisms supporting empathy. Our findings may have important implications for the development of novel therapeutic interventions in clinical conditions characterized by empathy deficits, such as autism spectrum disorder.