An fMRI investigation of empathic processing in boys with conduct problems and varying levels of callous-unemotional traits.
Sethi A., O'Nions E., McCrory E., Bird G., Viding E.
The ability to empathise relies in part on using one's own affective experience to simulate the affective experience of others. This process is supported by a number of brain areas including the anterior insula (AI), anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), and the amygdala. Children with conduct problems (CP), and in particular those with high levels of callous-unemotional traits (CP/HCU) present with less empathy than their peers. They also show reduced neural response in areas supporting empathic processing when viewing other people in distress. The current study focused on identifying brain areas co-activated during affective introspection of: i) One's own emotions ('Own emotion'); ii) Others' emotions ('Other emotion'); and iii) One's feelings about others' emotions ('Feel for other') during fearful vs neutral scenarios in typically developing boys (TD; n = 31), boys with CP/HCU (n = 31), and boys with CP and low levels of CU (CP/LCU; n = 33). The conjunction analysis across conditions within the TD group revealed significant clusters of activation in the AI, ACC/mPFC, and occipital cortex. Conjunction analyses across conditions in the CP/HCU and CP/LCU groups did not identify these areas as significantly activated. However, follow-up analyses were not able to confirm statistically significant differences between groups across the whole network, and Bayes-factor analyses did not provide substantial support for either the null or alternate hypotheses. Post-hoc comparisons indicated that the lack of conjunction effects in the CP/HCU group may reflect reduced affective introspection in the 'Other emotion' and 'Feel for other' conditions, and by reduced affective introspection in the 'Own emotion' condition in the CP/LCU group. These findings provide limited and ultimately equivocal evidence for altered affective introspection regarding others in CP/HCU, and altered affective introspection for own emotions in CP/LCU, and highlight the need for further research to systematically investigate the precise nature of empathy deficits in children with CP.