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Empathy For Others in Pain Present in ASD

By Shana R. Spindler, Ph.D. on January 23, 2014
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Background: Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is feeling. The lack of this trait was thought to underlie some of the social problems present in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). However, few studies have addressed the brain activity of those with ASD in situations where empathy would be likely.


What’s new: On January 14, 2014, the online journal Translational Psychiatry published a study that suggests people with ASD maintain the neural ability to process empathy, at least when seeing others in pain. Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine the spontaneous brain activity of 38 adolescents and adults with high-functioning ASD and 35 age-matched controls as they watched two-second videos of people with shoulder pain.


Contrary to popular belief, the individuals with ASD showed no significant difference in spontaneous brain activity upon seeing someone in pain as compared to the control group. Both groups had activity in brain areas involving emotional arousal and understanding. At a lower statistical threshold, the group with ASD appeared to have increased activity in brain areas likely used for situation assessment.
Why it’s important: The researchers suggest that empathy remains intact in ASD, while the perceived lack of caring links to attempts to calm personal distress by reassessing the situation. The authors of the study note that pain is a very basic social cue and that future studies should look at additional situations where empathy is used.

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