Neural mechanisms underlying empathy behaviors in mammals

Neural mechanisms underlying empathy behaviors in mammals
Issue Date
Genes, Brain & Behavior 13th Annual Meeting
Empathy is the capacity to identify with or understand another’s situation, feeling, or motivation. Empathy is essential for social behaviors in mammals. Fear can be acquired by observation of others suffering from a fearful situation. Such observational fear is thought to be dependent on empathy. We have developed a behavioral assay to monitor observational fear in the mouse. Mice display freezing behavior upon observing other mice experiencing repetitive foot shocks, and they get conditioned for this context. Demonstrator mice who are closely related to the observer mice elicited a stronger fear response in the observer mice, a phenomenon similar to the situation in empathy behaviors in humans. Using the lesion techniques, we identified the medial pain system of the brain as the important brain substrate necessary for the observational fear; sensory thalamic nuclei appeared unnecessary for the behavior. Recording in vivo of the local field potential revealed an increase of neuronal activities at the theta frequency in the ACC and amygdala during the observational fear behavior. In addition, the theta rhythms were synchronized between the two regions during this learning. Furthermore, we found that Cav1.2 Ca2+ channels in ACC are necessary for the behavior. These results demonstrate the functional involvement of the affective pain system and Cav1.2 channels in the ACC in observational social fear by empathy. Currently, we are trying to define the circuits underlying the cortical mechanism for this social learning behavior, and see a tendency for cortical lateralization in this behavior. I will discuss current findings in the context of the neural circuits for social learning.
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