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      Empathy and stress related neural responses in maternal decision making

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          Mothers need to make caregiving decisions to meet the needs of children, which may or may not result in positive child feedback. Variations in caregivers' emotional reactivity to unpleasant child-feedback may be partially explained by their dispositional empathy levels. Furthermore, empathic response to the child's unpleasant feedback likely helps mothers to regulate their own stress. We investigated the relationship between maternal dispositional empathy, stress reactivity, and neural correlates of child feedback to caregiving decisions. In Part 1 of the study, 33 female participants were recruited to undergo a lab-based mild stressor, the Social Evaluation Test (SET), and then in Part 2 of the study, a subset of the participants, 14 mothers, performed a Parenting Decision Making Task (PDMT) in an fMRI setting. Four dimensions of dispositional empathy based on the Interpersonal Reactivity Index were measured in all participants—Personal Distress, Empathic Concern, Perspective Taking, and Fantasy. Overall, we found that the Personal Distress and Perspective Taking were associated with greater and lesser cortisol reactivity, respectively. The four types of empathy were distinctly associated with the negative (vs. positive) child feedback activation in the brain. Personal Distress was associated with amygdala and hypothalamus activation, Empathic Concern with the left ventral striatum, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC), and supplemental motor area (SMA) activation, and Fantasy with the septal area, right SMA and VLPFC activation. Interestingly, hypothalamus-septal coupling during the negative feedback condition was associated with less PDMT-related cortisol reactivity. The roles of distinct forms of dispositional empathy in neural and stress responses are discussed.

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          Most cited references 25

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          Is there a core neural network in empathy? An fMRI based quantitative meta-analysis.

          Whilst recent neuroimaging studies have identified a series of different brain regions as being involved in empathy, it remains unclear concerning the activation consistence of these brain regions and their specific functional roles. Using MKDA, a whole-brain based quantitative meta-analysis of recent fMRI studies of empathy was performed. This analysis identified the dACC-aMCC-SMA and bilateral anterior insula as being consistently activated in empathy. Hypothesizing that what are here termed affective-perceptual and cognitive-evaluative forms of empathy might be characterized by different activity patterns, the neural activations in these forms of empathy were compared. The dorsal aMCC was demonstrated to be recruited more frequently in the cognitive-evaluative form of empathy, whilst the right anterior insula was found to be involved in the affective-perceptual form of empathy only. The left anterior insula was active in both forms of empathy. It was concluded that the dACC-aMCC-SMA and bilateral insula can be considered as forming a core network in empathy, and that cognitive-evaluative and affective-perceptual empathy can be distinguished at the level of regional activation. Copyright © 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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            Untangling the links of parental responsiveness to distress and warmth to child outcomes.

            This study demonstrated separate linkages between 2 features of positive parenting--responsiveness to distress and warmth--and different aspects of children's socio-emotional functioning, in a sample of 106 children (6-8 years old). As expected, mothers' and fathers' responsiveness to distress, but not warmth, predicted better negative affect regulation. Maternal responsiveness to distress also predicted children's empathy and prosocial responding. Maternal warmth, but not responsiveness to distress, was linked to better regulation of positive affect and (in boys only) to greater peer acceptance. Additionally, negative affect regulation mediated between maternal responsiveness to distress and children's empathic responding. Positive affect regulation mediated between maternal warmth and boys' peer acceptance. The findings support a differentiated approach to positive parenting.
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              The neural components of empathy: predicting daily prosocial behavior.

              Previous neuroimaging studies on empathy have not clearly identified neural systems that support the three components of empathy: affective congruence, perspective-taking, and prosocial motivation. These limitations stem from a focus on a single emotion per study, minimal variation in amount of social context provided, and lack of prosocial motivation assessment. In the current investigation, 32 participants completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging session assessing empathic responses to individuals experiencing painful, anxious, and happy events that varied in valence and amount of social context provided. They also completed a 14-day experience sampling survey that assessed real-world helping behaviors. The results demonstrate that empathy for positive and negative emotions selectively activates regions associated with positive and negative affect, respectively. In addition, the mirror system was more active during empathy for context-independent events (pain), whereas the mentalizing system was more active during empathy for context-dependent events (anxiety, happiness). Finally, the septal area, previously linked to prosocial motivation, was the only region that was commonly activated across empathy for pain, anxiety, and happiness. Septal activity during each of these empathic experiences was predictive of daily helping. These findings suggest that empathy has multiple input pathways, produces affect-congruent activations, and results in septally mediated prosocial motivation.

                Author and article information

                Front Neurosci
                Front Neurosci
                Front. Neurosci.
                Frontiers in Neuroscience
                Frontiers Media S.A.
                12 June 2014
                : 8
                1Department of Psychiatry, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI, USA
                2Research Center for Group Dynamics, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI, USA
                3Department of Psychiatry, University of Rochester Medical Center Rochester, NY, USA
                4Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Stony Brook University New York, NY, USA
                Author notes

                Edited by: Steve W. C. Chang, Yale University, USA; Masaki Isoda, Kansai Medical University, Japan

                Reviewed by: Kai MacDonald, Kai MacDonald, USA; Olga Dal Monte, National Institute of Health, USA

                *Correspondence: S. Shaun Ho, Department of Psychiatry, University of Michigan, 4250 Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor, MI, 48105, USA e-mail: hosh@

                This article was submitted to Decision Neuroscience, a section of the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience.

                Copyright © 2014 Ho, Konrath, Brown and Swain.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

                Page count
                Figures: 4, Tables: 3, Equations: 0, References: 41, Pages: 9, Words: 7355
                Original Research Article


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