Sharing painful experiences in the brain

Still more evidence that we are fearfully and wonderfully complex. This study from Stuart Derbyshire’s group at Birmingham, UK, and published in the premier pain journal, PAIN, involved two parts. First, they grabbed a hundred volunteers and showed them nasty pictures of injuries happening or happened. The asked people to report what they felt when they looked at the pictures.    About 30 of them reported feeling pain in the same location as the injury shown in the photo.  They then did some functional brain imaging to, in sense, check those participants were not lying.  The brain imaging data were interesting – higher activation of prefrontal and cingulate cortices in the ‘responders’ than in a group of the original 100 who didn’t report feeling any pain when they looked at the pictures.  How should we interpret this?  Well, best to read the whole paper before you do interpret it, but in the meantime, I reckon it shows that the stimulus, seeing someone else’s body in danger, is enough to activate our own systems to protect. What is more, our protective system is targeted and specific to the relevant body part…..Groovy stuff.

Pain sensation evoked by observing injury in others

Jody Osborn and Stuart W.G. Derbyshire

Abstract

Observing someone else in pain produces a shared emotional experience that predominantly activates brain areas processing the emotional component of pain. Occasionally, however, sensory areas are also activated and there are anecdotal reports of people sharing both the somatic and emotional components of someone else’s pain. Here we presented a series of images or short clips depicting noxious events to a large group of normal controls……

….In contrast with emotional images not containing noxious events the responders activated emotional and sensory brain regions associated with pain while the non-responders activated very little. These findings provide convincing evidence that some people can readily experience both the emotional and sensory components of pain during observation of other’s pain resulting in a shared physical pain experience.

For the full article see Osborn, J., & Derbyshire, S. (2009). Pain sensation evoked by observing injury in others. Pain. DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2009.11.007.

Once again, for another good write up, see Science Blogs and Mo Costs’ Feeling the Pain of others