The Anatomy of Suffering: Understanding the Relationship between Nociceptive and Empathic Pain.
UNLABELLED The observation of pain in other individuals is known to impact the cerebral activity in regions dedicated to one's nociception, as well as the behavior toward the person in pain. However, it remains unclear whether this shared representation for pain modulates somatosensory processing to nonpainful stimuli and whether this modulation is limb specific. Twenty right-handed healthy participants viewed a series of pictures depicting right hands or right feet in painful or nonpainful situations while light repetitive (25 Hz) mechanical stimuli were applied to the hand. The cortical excitability to these nonpainful stimuli was measured through the energy in the 25-Hz frequency band of electroencephalographic data. Following picture onset, a combination of nonspecific and specific modulation of cortical excitability was found. The former was widespread over the parieto-central region and likely related to factors such as attention. The latter was mostly restricted to 3 electrodes over the parietal cortex contralateral to the stimulation of the hand, and was specifically associated with the observation of others' hand in painful scenarios. This result confirms that the observation of pain can modulate somatosensory cortical excitability in an effector-specific way. The findings add to the accumulating evidence that other people's somatic pain is mapped onto the observer's sensori-motor system and offers a new paradigm to investigate potential neurophysiological changes in care providers who are often overexposed to others' pain. PERSPECTIVE This electroencephalography study demonstrates with a quick, easily implementable, and noninvasive paradigm that the change in cortical somatosensory excitability during pain observation is limb-specific, and confirms from a neuroscience perspective that being exposed to others' pain implies more than the sharing of an affective experience.