Individual differences in brain structure and self-reported empathy in children
journal contributionposted on 2022-01-01, 00:00 authored by K O Bray, E Pozzi, Nandi VijayakumarNandi Vijayakumar, S Richmond, C Deane, C Pantelis, V Anderson, S Whittle
AbstractEmpathy refers to the understanding and sharing of others’ emotions and comprises cognitive and affective components. Empathy is important for social functioning, and alterations in empathy have been demonstrated in many developmental or psychiatric disorders. While several studies have examined associations between empathy and brain structure in adults, few have investigated this relationship in children. Investigating associations between empathy and brain structure during childhood will help us to develop a deeper understanding of the neural correlates of empathy across the lifespan. A total of 125 children (66 females, mean age 10 years) underwent magnetic resonance imaging brain scans. Grey matter volume and cortical thickness from structural images were examined using the Computational Anatomy Toolbox (CAT12) within Statistical Parametric Mapping (SPM12) software. Children completed questionnaire measures of empathy (cognitive empathy, affective empathy: affective sharing, empathic concern, and empathic distress). In hypothesised region of interest analyses, individual differences in affective and cognitive empathy were related to grey matter volume in the insula and the precuneus. Although these relationships were of similar strength to those found in previous research, they did not survive correction for the total number of models computed. While no significant findings were detected between grey matter volume and empathy in exploratory whole-brain analysis, associations were found between cortical thickness and empathic concern in the right precentral gyrus. This study provides preliminary evidence that individual differences in self-reported empathy in children may be related to aspects of brain structure. Findings highlight the need for more research investigating the neurobiological correlates of empathy in children.