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Where is the origin of empathy? - In search for the biological origins of prosociality, altruism and morality


Speaker:Jun Chen, M.D.

Time:14:00 - 15:00

About the speaker:


Empathy for pain (vicariously felt pain), an ability to feel, recognize, understand and share the painful emotions of others, has been gradually accepted to be a common identity in both human and rodents. However, the underlying neural and molecular mechanisms are largely unknown.

Recently, we have developed a rat model of empathy for pain in which pain transferred from a cagemate demonstrator (CD) in pain to a naïve cagemate observer (CO) after 30 min dyadic priming social interaction. Chemical lesions of bilateral medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) abolish the empathic pain response completely, suggesting the existence of a top-down facilitation system in production of empathy for pain. However, the social transfer of pain was not observed in non-cagemate observer (NCO) after dyadic social interaction with a non-cagemate demonstrator (NCD) in pain. Here we showed that dyadic social interaction with a painful CD resulted in elevation of circulating norepinephrine (NE) and increased neuronal activity in the locus coeruleus (LC) in the CO rats. Meanwhile, CO rats also had over-expression of P2X3, but not TRPV1, in the dorsal root ganglia (DRG). Chemical lesion of the LC-NE neurons systemic DSP-4 and pharmacological inhibition of central synaptic release of NE by clonidine completely abolished increase in circulating NE and P2X3 receptor expression, as well as the sympathetically-maintained development of empathic mechanical hyperalgesia. Taken together with our previous results, empathy for pain observed in the CO rats is likely to be mediated by activation of the top-down mPFC-LC/NE-sympathoadrenomedullary (SAM) system that further up-regulates P2X3 receptors in the periphery.