The ability to empathize with others stems from a long evolutionary history that includes empathy-like behaviors in animals beyond humans. Whales and primates grieve alongside members of their social groups, for example, while rodents are able to recognize and respond to the fear and pain of their neighbors. 

A study published January 8 in Science has found that the brain circuits engaged during empathetic behaviors in mice differ depending on the emotion they are experiencing. The social transmission of pain, for example, is mediated by a pathway involving the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the nucleus accumbens (NAc), while empathy-based fear is dictated by projections leading from the ACC to a region called the basolateral amygdala (BLA). These results also show, for the first time, that observing a neighbor having its pain alleviated can make a mouse’s own pain more tolerable. 

“The authors were able to determine the specific inputs and outputs from the ACC to other regions of the brain, which hasn’t been done before, and show that they differ depending on what state you’re in,” Stephanie Preston, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Michigan who studies empathy in humans, tells The Scientist. “This is a novel demonstration of the specific wiring that’s involved above and beyond the general idea of empathic pain and fear.”

Read the full article at The Scientist.