Another's pain in my brain - No evidence that placebo analgesia affects the sensory-discriminative component in empathy for pain


The shared representations account of empathy suggests that sharing other people’s emotions relies on neural processes similar to those engaged when directly experiencing such emotions. Recent research corroborated this by showing that placebo analgesia induced for first-hand pain resulted in reduced pain empathy and decreased activation in shared neural networks. However, those studies did not report any placebo-related variation of somatosensory engagement during pain empathy. The experimental paradigms used in these studies did not direct attention towards a specific body part in pain, which may explain the absence of effects for somatosensation. The main objective of this preregistered study was to implement a paradigm overcoming this limitation, and to investigate whether placebo analgesia may also modulate the sensory-discriminative component of empathy for pain. We induced a localized, first-hand placebo analgesia effect in the right hand of 45 participants by means of a placebo gel and conditioning techniques, and compared this to the left hand as a control condition. Participants underwent a pain task in the MRI scanner, receiving painful or non-painful electrical stimulation on their left or right hand, or witnessing another person receiving such stimulation. In contrast to a robust localized placebo analgesia effect for self-experienced pain, the empathy condition showed no differences between the two hands, neither for behavioral nor neural responses. We thus report no evidence for somatosensory sharing in empathy, while replicating previous studies showing overlapping brain activity in the affective-motivational component for first-hand and empathy for pain. Hence, in a more rigorous test aiming to overcome limitations of previous work, we again find no causal evidence for the engagement of somatosensory sharing in empathy. Our study refines the understanding of the neural underpinnings of empathy for pain, and the use of placebo analgesia in investigating such models. See also the matching Twitter thread.

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