Lack of empathy following traumatic brain injury linked to reduced responsiveness to anger

Egocentric, self-centred, and insensitive to the needs of others: these social problems often arise in people with severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and have been attributed in part to a loss of emotional empathy, the capacity to recognise and understand the emotions of other people. Given that traumatic brain injuries are becoming more common, and resulting empathy deficits can have negative repercussions on social functioning and quality of life, it is increasingly important to understand the processes that shape emotional empathy. A new study has recently revealed evidence of a relationship between physiological responses to anger and a reduction of emotional empathy post-injury, as reported in the May 2011 issue of Elsevier’s Cortex (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00109452).

Researchers from the University of New South Wales, Australia, teamed up to investigate whether physiological responses to emotions correlate with emotional empathy in a group of adults with severe TBI and a group of healthy control participants. After determining the emotional empathy abilities of the participants by questionnaire, the researchers measured activation of their facial muscles and sweat glands, in response to happy and angry facial expressions, using facial electromyography (EMG) and skin conductance. They found that the control group spontaneously mimicked the emotional facial expressions they saw, and also perspired more in response to angry faces. In contrast, those in the TBI group generally scored lower in emotional empathy and were less responsive, specifically to angry faces. Lack of emotional empathy was specifically found to be associated with reduced physiological responses to angry faces.

“The results of this study were the first to reveal that reduced emotional responsiveness observed after severe TBI is linked to changes in empathy in this population. The study also lends support to the conclusion that impaired emotional responsiveness – including facial mimicry and skin conductance – may be caused, at least in part, by dysfunction within the system responsible for emotional empathy”, explains author Arielle De Sousa. “This has important implications for understanding the impaired social functioning and poor quality of interpersonal relationships commonly seen as a consequence of TBI, and may be key to comprehending and treating empathy deficits post-injury.”

Notes to Editors

The article is “Understanding deficits in empathy after traumatic brain injury: The role of affective responsivity” by Arielle de Sousa, Skye McDonald, Jacqueline Rushby, Sophie Li, Aneta Dimoska, and Charlotte James, and appears in Cortex, Volume 47, Issue 5 (May 2011), published by Elsevier in Italy. Full text of the article featured above is available to members of the media upon request. Please contact the Elsevier press office, [email protected]. To schedule an interview, contact Dr Arielle de Sousa, [email protected].

About Cortex

Cortex is an international journal devoted to the study of cognition and of the relationship between the nervous system and mental processes, particularly as these are reflected in the behaviour of patients with acquired brain lesions, normal volunteers, children with typical and atypical development, and in the activation of brain regions and systems as recorded by functional neuroimaging techniques. It was founded in 1964 by Ennio De Renzi. The Editor in-chief of Cortex is Sergio Della Sala, Professor of Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. Fax: 0131 6513230, e-mail: [email protected]. Cortex is available online at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00109452

About Elsevier

Elsevier is a world-leading provider of scientific, technical and medical information products and services. The company works in partnership with the global science and health communities to publish more than 2,000 journals, including The Lancet and Cell, and close to 20,000 book titles, including major reference works from Mosby and Saunders. Elsevier’s online solutions include SciVerse ScienceDirect, SciVerse Scopus, Reaxys, MD Consult and Nursing Consult, which enhance the productivity of science and health professionals, and the SciVal suite and MEDai’s Pinpoint Review, which help research and health care institutions deliver better outcomes more cost-effectively.

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