NARSAD Grant-Funded Research Identifies Where Empathy Originates in the Brain

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Jin Fan, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine
Jin Fan, Ph.D.

Jin Fan, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, used his NARSAD Young Investigator Grant to help identify where human empathy is centered in the brain: the area known as the anterior insular cortex. The research involved an international team and showed for the first time that this one area of the brain is the activity center of human empathy, whereas other areas of the brain are not.

Empathy is the ability to perceive and share another person's emotional state. In the past decade, scientists have used powerful functional MRI imaging to identify several regions in the brain associated with empathy, but this study firmly establishes that the anterior insular cortex is where the feeling of empathy originates. Empathy deficits in patients with brain damage to the anterior insular cortex are surprisingly similar to the empathy deficits found in several brain and behavior disorders, including schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, borderline personality disorder and conduct disorders, suggesting potentially common neural deficits in those illnesses.The study was published in the September 2012 issue of the journal Brain.

This study suggests that behavioral and cognitive therapies can be developed to compensate for deficits in the anterior insular cortex and its related functions such as empathy in patients. These findings can also inform future research evaluating the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying complex social functions in the anterior insular cortex and develop possible pharmacological treatments for patients.

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Please note that researchers cannot give specific recommendations or advice about treatment; diagnosis and treatment are complex and highly individualized processes that require comprehensive face-to- face assessment. Please visit our "Ask an Expert" section to see a list of Q & A with NARSAD Grantees.
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