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Neural mechanisms of social empathy in the anterior cingulate cortex

Fanbo Meng1† Fancheng Meng1† Yue Cui2† Xuyang Li1 Wenye Huang3 Qian Xue1 Zhantao Bai2* Shengxi Wu1* Hui Xu1*
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1 Department of Neurobiology and Collaborative Innovation Center for Brain Science, School of Basic Medicine, The Fourth Military Medical University, Xi’an 710032, Shaanxi, China
2 College of Life Sciences and Research Center for Resource Peptide Drugs, Shaanxi Engineering and Technological Research Center for Conversation and Utilization of Regional Biological Resources, Yanan University, Yanan 716000, Shaanxi, China
3 College of Life Sciences, Northwest University, Xi’an 710069, Shaanxi, China
Advanced Neurology 2023, 2(1), 281
Submitted: 1 December 2022 | Accepted: 12 January 2023 | Published: 10 February 2023
© 2023 by the Author(s). This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License ( )

Empathy is a prosocial behavior that perceives the emotional state of others, expresses similar perceptions that match those of others, and mediates different social behaviors. Empathic behaviors for pain and fear also exist in primates and rodents. In the past decades, the neural mechanisms of empathy have been defined as a result of various sensations and perceptions, such as visual and hearing stimuli, which cause mirror activations in brain regions, such as the insular, the inferior frontal, and the medial frontal cortices, among which the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) has been identified as a core region of the neural network that is associated with the empathic activity in mammals. Most studies on the neural mechanisms underlying empathy have been based on rodent models, which allowed for single-cell resolution mapping of neuronal activity; moreover, the application of optogenetic techniques in rodent models has led to a deeper delineation of neural circuits. Here, we review the role of the ACC in two behavioral paradigms, pain and fear empathy, in rodents at the neuronal and neural circuit levels. Understanding how the ACC mediates empathic behavior in the brain will provide new targets in the treatment for neuropsychiatric disorders characterized by empathic disorders.

Anterior cingulate cortex
Mirror neurons
Somatostatin neurons
Neural circuits
National Natural Science Foundation of China
University Science & Technology Fund Planning Project

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Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
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