Press release Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience

I feel you: emotional mirror neurons found in the rat

12 April 2019

Why is it that we can get sad, when we see someone else crying? Why is it that we wince, when a friend cuts his finger? Researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience have found that the rat brain activates the same cells when they observe the pain of others as when they experience pain themselves. In addition, without activity of these 'mirror neurons', the animals no longer share the pain of others.

As many psychiatric disorders are characterized by a lack of empathy, finding the neural basis for sharing the emotions of others, and being able to modify how much an animal shares the emotions of others, is an exciting step towards understanding empathy and these disorders. The findings are published in the leading journal Current Biology.

Human neuroimaging studies have shown that when we experience pain ourselves, we activate a region of the brain called 'the cingulate cortex'. When we see someone else in pain, we reactivate the same region.

On the basis of this, researchers formulated two speculations: (a) the cingulate cortex contains mirror neurons, i.e. neurons that trigger our own feeling of pain and are reactivated when we see the pain of others, and (b) that this is the reason why we wince and feel pain while seeing the pain of others. This intuitively plausible theory of empathy however remained untested because it is not possible to record the activity of individual brain cells in humans. Moreover, it is not possible to modulate brain activity in the human cingulate cortex to determine whether this brain region is responsible for empathy.

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Read the full article on the website of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience

Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience

The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience is an Academy research institute. It conducts basic and strategic research in the neurosciences. It examines how the human brain makes awareness, perception, movement, learning, social interaction and other cognitive functions possible. It also studies how brain disorders can disrupt these functions.

The Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience is located in Amsterdam (Meibergdreef 47, 1105 BA Amsterdam).

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