The ability to empathize with the suffering of others is critical for maintaining relationships and engaging in prosocial behavior. Recently, a series of studies have demonstrated that while watching other people experience pain (other pain), participants engage the anterior insula (AI) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), brain regions involved in the direct experience of pain (self pain). Here we test the hypothesis that common activity in ACC and AI may reflect the operation of distinct but overlapping networks of regions that support perception of self or other pain. To address this possibility, we scanned participants using fMRI while they received noxious thermal stimulation (self pain) or watched short videos of other people sustaining painful injuries (other pain). We isolated overlapping regions for self and other pain in the ACC and AI and then used them as seed regions for two kinds of functional connectivity analyses. These analyses identified areas whose activity co-varied with ACC and AI activity during self or other pain either across time (intra-individual connectivity) or across participants (inter-individual connectivity). Both connectivity analyses identified clusters in the midbrain and periaqueductal gray with greater connectivity to the AI during self pain as opposed to other pain. The opposite pattern was found in the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, that showed greater connectivity to the ACC and AI during other pain than during self pain using both types of analysis. Intra-individual connectivity analyses also revealed regions in the superior temporal sulcus, posterior cingulate, and precuneus that became more connected to ACC during other pain as compared to self pain. Together, these data demonstrated that regions showing similar activity during self and other pain may nonetheless be part of distinct functional networks. These networks could not have been detected in prior work that examined overlap between self and other pain in terms of average activity, but not connectivity.
View details for DOI 10.1080/17470910701401973
View details for Web of Science ID 000252245400008
View details for PubMedID 18633819
View details for PubMedCentralID PMC2913618